An opposition enclave in southern Syria on Tuesday came under the fiercest bombing since the regime attempted to recapture the area a month ago, residents and opposition sources in Amman said.
Rocket attacks by the Syrian military and militias allied with Iran began ferociously on Tuesday morning but subsided by late afternoon.
The sources said the break in the bombardment was designed for Russia to try to convince Deraa Al Balad’s 400 defenders to surrender for the offensive to stop.
“The shelling and rocket fire were the heaviest so far,” a resident who gave his first name as Mutasim said in a text message.
“They seemed intent on wiping out Deraa Al Balad before the fire suddenly stopped,” he said.
Deraa Al Balad and surrounding opposition areas in the countryside have been a testbed for the last three years for a different Russian posture in Syria not entirely reliant on force.
It centred on allowing a degree of self-governance to opposition areas in southern Syria and curbing the iron fist of the regime.
The approach, diplomats in the Middle East say, was partly influenced by Russia’s desire to draw international reconstruction funds to Syria.
It was also meant to show that forced population displacement does not necessarily accompany the return of the regime, they said.
A tacit deal between Russia, Israel and the US returned most of southern Syria to the regime in 2018 as a "de-escalation zone" supervised by Moscow.
"The Deraa model did not last long," one European diplomat in Amman said.
Deraa Al Balad is part of the city of Deraa, the capital of the Hauran Plain and birthplace of the 2011 revolt against five decades of Assad family rule.
The Russian-supervised arrangements in the city collapsed last month after opposition fighters attacked regime positions.
The rebels said it was a pre-emptive strike to stop a drive by the regime to overrun the area and others in southern Syria.
Government forces attacked the city with truck-mounted rocket launchers on Tuesday, killing at least two people, anti-Assad activists in Hauran said.
The rebels in the district and in allied villages and towns responded by attacking several regime positions in Hauran with medium weapons.
The regime’s offensive is spearheaded by the Syrian military's Fourth Division, regarded as the best-equipped unit.
Arab security sources said that although Mr Al Assad’s army enjoys close ties with Russia, Iran has also forged close links with the Fourth Division in the last six years.
The unit is headed by President Bashar Al Assad’s brother Maher Al Assad, the second most powerful man after the Syrian leader.
An opposition source in Amman said Russia sent several officers from its main military base of Hmeimim on the Mediterranean coast to Deraa on Tuesday to renegotiate a de facto rebel surrender.
“The Russian tactic is to keep up the pressure on Daraa Al Balad to give up while trying to avoid a massacre,” the source said.
“It would not be in Moscow’s interest.”
Under a proposal floated by the Russian military over the last four weeks, a quarter of the rebels would be expelled to areas under the Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria.
The remainder would have to surrender their weapons and submit to the authority of the regime.
The government’s offensive expanded this week to rural opposition areas surrounding Deraa, prompting thousands of people in opposition areas to flee towards the West.
Some families reportedly took refuge in the Yarmouk River Valley, which is near Jordan and Israel.
The displacement continued on Tuesday, with dozens of families reportedly fleeing the opposition town on of Jassem, 40 kilometres north of Deraa.