‘WE’RE FIN­ISHED’

Syria takes back key en­clave

Saskatoon StarPhoenix - - FRONT PAGE - Philip issa

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.

MO­HAMAD ABAZEED / AFP / GETTY IM­AGES

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.

AM­MAR AL ALI / ANADOLU AGENCY / GETTY IM­AGES

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