Air strikes, clashes hit IS pocket in south Syria: Monitor

BEIRUT, Lebanon (AFP) – Russian air strikes and fierce clashes yesterday rocked a sliver of territory in southwestern Syria held by the Islamic State (IS) extremist group, a war monitor said.

Much of the southern province of Daraa had been quiet since last Friday, when a ceasefire between rebels and Syria’s regime ended a nearly three-week government assault.

But a local branch of IS, known as Jaish Khaled bin Walid and based in a small area in Daraa’s western countryside, was not included in the deal.

Earlier yesterday, Russian warplanes began pounding the IS-controlled town of Saham al-Golan, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

“Russian air strikes hit Saham al-Golan this morning, as dozens of shells and artillery fire hit the town,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.

Syrian regime soldiers ride an infantry-fighting vehicle in western Daraa province on July 7. – AFP

In retaliation, IS launched an attack southwards on Heet, a rebel-held town that recently agreed to return to regime control.

The Britain-based Observatory, which relies on a network of sources across Syria, gave no immediate death toll for yesterday’s fighting.

“Daesh (IS) stormed Heet, detonated a car bomb and advanced there and are also intensely bombing the nearby village of Zaizun,” said Abdel Rahman.

IS claimed responsibility on Tuesday for a suicide car bombing in Zaizun that left 14 fighters dead.

The claim, distributed through an online messaging service, included the first apparent reference to the south as an official IS “province” amidst crushing military defeats in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

Yesterday’s clashes were raging less than 10 kilometres from the armistice line with the Israeli-occupied Golan, and just four kilometres from Jordan.

Anticipating an attack, thousands have fled the IS-held zone in recent days towards the Israeli-occupied Golan.

Around 200,000 displaced people have already sought refuge near the sealed armistice line, according to the United Nations.

The strategic location makes the south a prize for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.

Backed by Russia, his troops began an offensive on Daraa province on June 19 that killed dozens of civilians and displaced more than 320,000 people.

That ended last Friday, when Moscow brokered a deal for rebels to surrender weapons and hand over towns to regime troops.

The agreement also provides for safe passage for thousands of opposition fighters and civilians to rebel territory further north, although those transfers have not yet begun.

The regime now controls around 80 per cent of Daraa province, while rebels hold around 15 per cent, according to the Observatory.

The rebel pocket includes parts of western Daraa and the surrounded southern districts of its provincial capital.