Regime forces carry out operation to consolidate dominance in southern Daraa, killing at least 15 civilians, but rebels fight back seizing many regime military checkpoints, sources say.
Syrian rebels have fought back and waged a spate of mortar attacks on regime checkpoints in the southern province of Daraa in the biggest flare-up of violence since regime forces retook the restive region three years ago, rebels, residents and regime said.
Thursday's clashes spread to the countryside and 15 civilians lost their lives in the attacks by the regime forces, according to local sources.
The widespread attacks at regime military outposts near the Damascus-Daraa highway leading to the border crossing of Nassib with Jordan also disrupted passenger and commercial traffic at the main gateway for goods from Lebanon and Syria to the Gulf.
Multiple military checkpoints around key towns and villages from the town of Nawa north of the province to Muzarib near the border with Jordan were also seized by rebels, they said.
The regime sent reinforcements from its elite Fourth Division, run by leader Bashar al Assad's brother Maher, senior military defectors said, confirming army leaks.
According to local sources, the regime forces encountered residents and armed opposition groups in Daraa al Balad neighbourhood and withdrew after intense clashes.
After the regime forces attacked with tanks and artillery shells, the clashes spread to the western and eastern countryside of Daraa.
Regime operation in restive enclave
The attacks came after the regime forces launched a dawn operation against the rebel-held old quarter of the city of Daraa, where peaceful protests against decades of autocratic Assad family rule began in 2011 and were met by deadly force before spreading across the country.
The regime has sought to reassert its control after the collapse of talks earlier this week to get local elders and former rebels to allow the army to extend its control inside the old quarter, known as Daraa al Balad.
The Syrian regime, aided by Russian air power and Iranian militias, retook control of the strategic province that borders Jordan and Israeli occupied Golan Heights to the west in the summer of 2018.
Russian-brokered deals at the time forced rebels to hand over heavy weapons and return state institutions in the enclave but kept away the regime military from entering their neighbourhoods.
"The rebels have waged a counter offensive after the army operation against Daraa whose intensity has taken the regime by surprise," said Zaid al Rayes, a political opposition figure in touch with local groups in Daraa.
Regime media said terrorists had fired at the main hospital in Daraa and the army had evacuated hundreds of fleeing families from rebel-held neighbourhoods.
Defiance in Daraa
Lying in the Daraa province, which is known as the birthplace of the Syrian revolution, Daraa al Balad district was blockaded by the regime forces on June 25 after residents, including former members of the Syrian opposition, resisted an order to surrender their light weapons and allow regime forces to search houses in the area.
Thousands of former rebels had chosen to stay with their families rather than head to remaining rebel and opposition-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas had gathered.
Daraa province saw a widespread boycott of last May's polls that extended Assad's rule in what regime saw as a defiance of its authority.
Western intelligence sources say growing dissent is aggravated by the presence of Iranian-backed local militias who now hold sway and act with impunity since the Assad regime is too weak to impose its authority on the area.
The war in Syria has killed more than 400,000 people and displaced millions since it started in 2011.