Syria shells rebel-held areas ahead of possible offensive

Syrian government forces shelled rebel-held areas in the south on Thursday, further undermining an international "de-escalation" agreement backed by the United States ahead of a threatened offensive, prompting a warning from the U.S. of "serious repercussions" for the violations.

The U.S., Russia and Jordan negotiated a truce for the area, which borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in July of last year. But the calm has started to unravel in recent weeks, and a war monitoring group said more than 12,500 people have been displaced since Tuesday, with most moving into other rebel-held areas.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported the shelling Thursday in areas northeast of the city of Daraa. The rebel factions hold parts of the city and areas to its west and east. The rebels also control areas along the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

State media said the government is shelling "terrorists'" posts northeast of Daraa, destroying their weapons.

The United States warned Russia and Syria's President Bashar Assad of "serious repercussions." State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said in a statement the U.S. remains "deeply troubled" by reports of "increasing Syrian regime operations" within the boundaries of the truce and demanded that Russia "restrain" Assad's forces from further action in the zone covered by the truce. She said Secretary of State Mike Pompeo relayed that message to Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov by phone over the weekend.

The statement, however, omitted a line in a past statement on the subject that said the U.S. would take "firm and appropriate measures" if Syria violated the de-escalation measure.

A spokesman said Thursday the U.N. is "deeply concerned" about the safety of 750,000 people in the region and called on all the parties involved to protect civilians.

The government has turned its attention to the south after capturing the last rebel-held areas around the capital, Damascus, earlier this year.

Israel has meanwhile carried out strikes against Syrian and Iranian forces in the area in recent months, after repeatedly warning against any Iranian buildup near the border. Iran is a close ally of Assad, and its advisers are embedded with his troops. Iranian-backed militias are also believed to be deployed in the area.

Government planes have dropped leaflets this week over rebel-held parts of Daraa province, comparing the area to the Damascus suburbs of eastern Ghouta and urging its residents to "cooperate" with the armed forces to drive out armed groups. The government besieged eastern Ghouta before waging a crushing military offensive. Government troops are meanwhile massing, mostly in the nearby Sweida province.

Rebel groups have responded by establishing a joint operations command to coordinate their defense of what the opposition refers to as the "death triangle."

Assad told Iranian TV last week that talks between the Russians, the Americans and the Israelis are still "ongoing," but said the Iranian presence in the area was not negotiable.

Israel is believed to be seeking an agreement in which Iran and its allied militias would withdraw from the border area.

The Syrian observatory later reported that a deal was reached, based on Russia's mediation, in which Iranian advisers and Iranian backed militia would withdraw, leaving a buffer of 40 kilometers (25 miles) from the occupied Golan Heights and the Jordanian border. The withdrawal, if confirmed, would be in line with negotiations led by Moscow.

In Syria, an official with the so-called axis of resistance led by Iran and including Syria and Hezbollah, denied a deal had been reached.

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Associated Press writers Bassem Mroue in Beirut, Josh Lederman in Washington and Jennifer Peltz at the United Nations contributed reporting.