Syrian army ready for southern battle-pro-Assad commander

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BEIRUT (Reuters) – The Syrian army has completed preparations for an imminent offensive against rebel-held areas in southwestern Syria, a non-Syrian commander in a military alliance that backs Damascus said on Tuesday.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights separately reported that rebels in the Deraa area of the southwest were reinforcing their positions as government forces arrived there.

The comments underline a government plan to target the area near the borders with Jordan and Israel despite a U.S. warning to take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to any violations of a ceasefire it brokered with Russia in that area.

“The Syrian army will wage all the battles and has now become strong and capable,” the commander told Reuters, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss military plans.

The southwest is one of the big chunks of territory that still remains outside the control of the Syrian government, which has recovered swathes of territory with the support of the Russian military and Iran-backed Shi’ite militias.

Fighting in southwestern Syria has been contained since last year by a “de-escalation” agreement brokered by Russia, the United States and Jordan.

A senior Jordanian official told Reuters on Monday the three countries that signed last year’s deal to create the zone “saw eye to eye” on the need to preserve it as a key step to boosting

efforts to reach a political solution in Syria.

Russia said on Monday that only Syrian army troops should be at the southern border with Jordan and Israel, which has waged air strikes in Syria to curb what it fears is Iran’s expanding influence.

Syrian government forces have in recent weeks crushed the last insurgent enclaves near Damascus and a besieged area north of the city of Homs. The commander said this had relieved pressure on the Syrian army.

An article published in the pro-Damascus al-Watan newspaper on Tuesday said signs “on the horizon” indicated the southern battle was near, and the final touches were being put to the battle plan.

Reporting by Laila Bassam and Tom Perry; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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