BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army unleashed a massive bombing of a rebel slave on Monday, preparing for the withdrawal of insurgents from another, while President Bashar al-Assad smashes the rebels' beleagured fortresses.
Rocket strikes against several military bases The Government Sunday, which has not been claimed by any party, despite speculation in Israel that its military is responsible, underlined the danger of further escalation in the seven-year conflict.
More than 140 air strikes of the Syrian army hit the city of Rastan and the surrounding villages in the rebel enclave between the cities of Hama and Homs on Monday along with continued bombing, said the Syrian Human Rights Observatory.
Last week, a Syrian government minister said the enclave was the army's next target after recapturing all the rebel areas around the capital, a goal that seems to come closest to the expected withdrawal of rebels from southern Damascus ,
Despite Assad's increasing stance against rebels since Russia's entry into the war in 2015 brought a series of victories on the battlefield, the involvement of numerous regional and global powers threatens to further fuel the war.
No one has taken responsibility for the rocket attacks that hit several bases near Hama and Aleppo overnight, causing major explosions, and the Syrian army has only accused the "aggression" of their enemies.
Israel has previously raided Syria to prevent Assad's ally Iran from becoming stronger or handing weapons to the Lebanese Hezbollah group, and there is widespread speculation in Israel that it was behind the attack.
Israeli intelligence minister Israel Katz did not want to comment on the strikes, but added that Israel "made it clear at all levels that there would be no Iranian front in Syria." An Israeli military spokesman said it would not comment on foreign reports.
Diplomats have warned of a possible major escalation between Israel and Iran in Syria as Assad and his allies take more territory from rebels.
The US, Jordan and Assad's main ally Russia have declared a ceasefire zone in southwestern Syria near the Israeli border, and on Monday Foreign Minister Mike Pompeo said Washington's strategy remains "unchanged."
The observatory said at least 26 people – mostly Iranians and members of an Iran-backed Iraqi militia – were killed in Sunday's strikes, and dozens of others were missing.
On Sunday, Pompeo in Israel said the US was "deeply concerned about the dangerous escalation of Iran's and Iran's threats to the region" and said it was crucial that the two Allies work together to stop them.
Iran's semi-official Tasnim News Agency said no Iranian base had been hit or Iranians killed. Alaeddin Boroujerdi, a high-ranking Iranian MP, met with Assad on Monday and said that Iran would retain its military advisers in Syria until the end of the war.
Tehran and its allies accused Israel of an April 9 air strike at Tiyas Air Force base in Syria, killing several Iranian military personnel, and Iran warned that it would not go "without an answer".
The attack by the Syrian army on the pocket between Homs and Hama – the most populous remaining besieged area in Syria – involved air strikes and artillery, said the UK-based observatory.
Before the bombing targeting Rastan, the largest city in the pocket, and several nearby villages, reinforcements arrived in government-controlled areas, the observatory said.
Syrian rebels hold large parts of northwest and southwestern Syria. An alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias supported by the United States holds large parts of northern and eastern Syria after an offensive against the Islamic State last year.
The bag in the south of Damascus divides into areas held by Islamic states and rebel groups. It has been the focus of massive bombing and intense fighting since the Syrian army retook the eastern Ghouta earlier this month.
Late on Sunday, state media reported that one of the rebel groups there, the jihadi Tahrir al-Sham alliance, which includes the former al-Qaeda party of Syria, had agreed to join the oppositional Idlib province in the To withdraw from northern Syria.
State television on Monday showed that preparations for this withdrawal, along with the evacuation of buses in northern Syria, resulted in the evacuation of civilians from two government-besieged villages owned by insurgents.
The surrender treaty for Tahrir al-Sham in the south of Damascus was part of an agreement that would allow about 5,000 people to leave the two government-controlled Shiite villages of al-Foua and Kefraya.
The state-run news agency SANA, however, reported continued intense bombing of al-Hajar al-Aswad, another area in the south of Damascus where Islamic state fighters are stationed.
Angus McDowall and Dahlia reporting in Beirut, Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Suleiman al-Khalidi and Lesley Wroughton in Amman, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara; Arrangement by Janet Lawrence, William Maclean