BEIRUT – Syrian army helicopters dropped leaflets Tuesday over rebel-held parts of the country's south calling on civilians to help the military clear the area of militants amid an increase of violence in the region that was among the first to rise against the government seven years ago.
The government-controlled Syrian Central Military Media said the leaflets were dropped over the rebel-held villages of Dael and Ibtah in the Daraa province.
Syrian government forces have been massing troops ahead of a possible attack on Daraa province and the nearby Quneitra region that border Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The United States warned last month it would take "firm and appropriate measures" to protect a cease-fire in southern Syria if government forces move against rebels there. The region has also been a source of regional tensions between Iran and Israel in recent months.
"The situation is very tense and it looks like the battle is knocking on the door," said Jalal al-Ahmad a media activist based in southern Syria. He said Syrian troops as well as members of Lebanon's Iran-backed Hezbollah group who are armed with anti-tank missiles and sophisticated monitoring equipment are sending reinforcements to the area. The reports could not be independently confirmed.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, reported shelling and airstrikes in different parts of Daraa on Tuesday. It added that government elite forces including the Republican Guards and Tiger Forces are already in the area although it is still not clear if the government will launch an all-out offensive in the coming days.
The United States, Russia, and Jordan agreed last year to include Daraa in a "de-escalation zone" and freeze the lines of conflict there. But the area has been tense following a series of recent Israeli strikes on Syrian and Iranian forces. Iran is a close ally of Assad, and its advisers are embedded with his troops.
Assad said last week that contacts aimed at reaching a settlement in the volatile area were "ongoing" between the Russians, the U.S., and the Israelis, adding that the relationship between Syria and Iran "will not be part of any settlement" and is "not in the international bazaar."
There has been speculation that Iran might pull its forces back from near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in some kind of settlement.
Israel has warned it will not tolerate a permanent Iranian military presence in Syria. Last month, it carried out a wave of airstrikes in response to what it said was an Iranian rocket attack on its positions in the Golan. It was the most serious confrontation between the regional archrivals to date.
Also on Tuesday, Syria expressed its strong condemnation and "absolute rejection" of the deployment of Turkish and American troops in the vicinity of the northern town of Manbaj, stressing that it is more determined to liberate all Syrian soil of any foreign presence.
Syria's Foreign Ministry said the incursion comes in the context of the continuing "Turkish and American aggression on Syria's sovereignty, territorial integrity and unity, and aims to prolong the crisis in Syria."
The ministry called on the international community to condemn the U.S. and Turkish act "which constitutes a flagrant violation of the purposes and the principles of the United Nations Charter."