Syria takes back key enclave
For the first time in more than seven years, the Syrian government raised its flag Thursday over Daraa, the first city to revolt against President Bashar Assad in 2011 and plunge the country into its calamitous civil war.
The display is laden with symbolism as the government moves to stamp out the last of the uprising against the 52-year-old Assad who has ruled with an iron fist over Syria for 18 years.
“It’s over, we’re finished,” texted Mouawiya Syasneh, a rebel fighter and one of the boys who is credited with helping spark the civil war with a small act of defiance with teenage friends in 2011 — spraying anti-assad graffiti on the walls of his school.
Syasneh was arrested with his friends and beaten and tortured by police. Their arrests ignited street protests in Daraa, then an uprising, and finally a bloody civil war.
In an interview with Britain’s Daily Telegraph, Syasneh accused the Free Syrian Army of selling out to the Assad regime.
Fighters in Daraa have accepted an offer of amnesty from the government, and let back in the state institutions and symbols of Assad’s rule. Rebels refusing to accept the deal will be exiled with their families to other rebel-held parts of the country.
“We have no friends anymore,” Syasneh told the paper. “This is where it all ends.”
“We’re cornered and the entire country has been handed over. We can’t do anything anymore despite having weapons, the rebel leaders took the pay cheque,” he added.
Syasneh said it was unlikely the government would offer him an amnesty.
“I am a special case because I am a child of the revolution. I am sure the Russians will hand me over to the regime,” he said. “My fate is unknown now, I don’t know what to do. I need to leave Syria because they won’t leave me alive.”
On Thursday, officials accompanied by state media crews hoisted Syria’s red, black and white flag over the rubble of the city’s main square, allowing it to wave in sight of the shell of the Omari Mosque where protesters first gathered in demonstrations in 2011.
The mosque has since been destroyed in the government’s brutal crackdown against the city, which ranged from alleged torturing of dissidents to shelling the city with tanks and planes.
With control over Daraa, government forces can now focus on clearing the last pockets of the opposition and, separately, the Islamic State group from the frontier at the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in a 1967 war.
The corner of southwest Syria is an important corridor for trade between Syria and Jordan, and onward to the oil-rich Gulf states. But most of the important fighting against the revolt has already been concluded in shattering battles farther to the north for the main cities of Damascus, Aleppo, and Homs, and territories in between. Some 400,000 people have been killed in seven years of war.
The agreement with the Daraa rebels follows a template imposed by the government and its Russian and Iranian backers that has forced hundreds of thousands of Syrians, including media activists, army defectors, and draft dodgers and their family members to give up their homes to lift the sieges against their cities.
Human rights monitors say the arrangements amount to a program of political and demographic engineering in Syria to secure Assad’s rule.
Under the terms of the agreement, Russia will deploy military police to maintain order in Daraa and facilitate the transition back to government rule, said a media activist inside who asked for anonymity out of concern for his safety.
Russian mediators are warning fighters and civilians against leaving Daraa for Idlib, the northwest Syrian province where over a million displaced Syrians are living in dire conditions and exposed to government airstrikes and the possibility of a future offensive.
“Idlib is a crematory,” the activist said Russian mediators warned him.
Humanitarian groups say more than 300,000 people have been displaced by the government’s southern offensive, moving toward the Jordanian border and to Quneitra, a province that borders Israel.
Israel and Jordan’s borders are closed to refugees, and the aid group Oxfam said Thursday it was unable to deliver enough aid across the Jordan border to meet the needs of the internally displaced residents.
“We’re cornered and the entire country has been handed over. We can’t do anything anymore despite having weapons, the rebel leaders took the pay cheques,” says Syrian rebel fighter Mouawiya Syasneh.
IDLIB IS A CREMATORY, AN ACTIVIST SAID RUSSIAN MEDIATORS WARNED HIM.
The Syrian national flag stands amid shattered buildings in Daraa-al-balad on Thursday after Syria’s army entered the area, the cradle of the uprising that sparked the country’s seven-year war, following a deal for rebels to hand over their heavy weapons.