By Sara Elizabeth Williams and Tom Coghlan
The Syrian regime has launched a large offensive near the Jordanian border, after its victory in the city of Homs two weeks ago freed thousands of troops for battles elsewhere.
The assault comes as the Free Syrian Army warned that, without major weapon supplies, they might have to switch to a guerrilla war. Some moderate rebel groups have begun to receive American-made anti-tank missiles, but only in small numbers.
Syrian regime forces launched the new offensive on Thursday, attacking the towns of Deraa, Inkhel, Nawa and Quneitra.
In Nawa, a rebel activist, Muhamed Shukri, said the town was under attack from three sides for the fourth day. “We get an average of 20 barrel bombs per day,” he said.
Another, Omar al-Hariri, said: “The regime is bombarding us with rockets and a mix of missiles from warplanes and explosive barrels dropped from helicopters. In four days we have counted 110 people dead and dozens wounded.”
Rebel forces hold significant territory close to Jordan and to the Golan Heights, on the Israeli border. “This could be a very big turning point in the war,” said Michael Stephens, deputy director of the Royal United Services Institute in Qatar. “It is quite worrying for rebel supply lines.”
The Assad regime has been able to reposition thousands of troops since retaking rebel-held areas farther north along the Lebanese border, in a rolling series of operations that culminated in the end of the two-year siege of Homs.
Lebanese fighters of the Shia militant group Hezbollah and Iraqi Shia militias have provided military support.
The government has also benefited from infighting among rebel groups. The secular Free Syrian Army and the al-Qaeda franchise Jabhat al-Nusra had managed to overlook ideological differences to fight a common enemy in southern Syria, but tensions between the two are high after Nusra arrested a FSA commander three weeks ago.
President Assad was quoted last month as claiming that the “active phase” of Syrian military operations would end this year.
Rebels called for western countries to speed up the supply of advanced weapons. At least nine moderate rebel groups have received American-made BGM-71 TOW anti-tank missiles since April 1, but the total numbers are so far believed to be only in the dozens.
“It is a crucial period,” said Monzer Akbik, chief spokesman for the Syrian National Council. “These missiles are very limited in number. If it gets sophisticated weapons, the Free Syrian Army will advance; if it gets nothing, the regime will advance and the war will turn back into an underground guerrilla war. But it will never stop till Assad goes.”
Rebel groups have tried to compensate for inferior equipment and supplies by resorting to innovative attack methods such as the use of huge tunnel bombs dug under government bases. A blast in Aleppo on May 8 killed up to 50 Syrian soldiers and reduced the elegant Ottoman-era Carlton hotel to rubble.
The Syrian opposition has been seeking to reorganise after a year of chaotic infighting in which hardline al-Qaeda-aligned jihadist groups have been locked in struggle with other rebel factions.
Moderate factions hailed a document published on Friday by the Islamic Front, an umbrella group for more than 70,000 fighters, which committed it to the pursuit of “freedom and justice” and made no mention of the formation of an “Islamic state”.