Syria rebels give up cra­dle of re­volt

Arab Times - - FRONT PAGE -

BEIRUT, July 12, (Agen­cies): 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. His fa­ther Hafez As­sad was pres­i­dent for three decades be­fore him.

Of­fi­cials ac­com­pa­nied by state me­dia crews hoisted the two-star 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 de­mand­ing re­forms then As­sad’s ouster in the spring of 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.

Protests in Daraa in 2011 Eng­land goal­keeper Jor­dan Pick­ford stops a shot on goal by Croa­tia for­ward Ante Re­bic (left), dur­ing the Rus­sia 2018 World Cup semi­fi­nal foot­ball match be­tween Croa­tia and Eng­land at the Luzh­niki Sta­dium in Moscow

on July 11. (AFP)

against the govern­ment’s mis­treat­ment of teenage de­tainees ig­nited a na­tional re­volt against decades of au­thor­i­tar­ian rule.

Ah­mad Masalmeh, a me­dia ac­tivist for­merly based in Daraa, said fight­ers in the city had 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.

The agree­ment 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.

Govern­ment forces launched an of­fen­sive to re­cap­ture south­west Syria and the ar­eas neigh­bor­ing Jor­dan and Is­rael on June 19. They sur­rounded Daraa’s rebel-held quar­ters on Mon­day. Dozens have been killed in the cam­paign, in­clud­ing 162 civil­ians, ac­cord­ing to Rami Ab­dur­rah­man, di­rec­tor of the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights — among them women

and chil­dren.

Mohamad al-Hanous, Daraa’s gov­er­nor, said govern­ment forces were in con­trol of 80 per­cent of the city, ac­cord­ing to the govern­ment-linked Cen­tral Mil­i­tary Me­dia out­let, while Syr­ian state me­dia re­ported late Wednes­day that rebels in Daraa had agreed to sur­ren­der their heavy and medium weapons.

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.

The cir­cum­stances are es­pe­cially per­ilous for jour­nal­ists and me­dia ac­tivists, who say they fear for their lives if they are cap­tured by govern­ment troops.

The Com­mit­tee to Pro­tect Jour­nal­ists said Wednes­day at least 70 jour­re­la­tion­ship,

nal­ists were trapped in south­west Syria and re­quired pro­tec­tion.

Syria is one of the most dan­ger­ous coun­tries in the world for jour­nal­ists, ac­cord­ing to CPJ. At least 120 jour­nal­ists have been killed in the coun­try in re­la­tion to their work since the con­flict be­gan in 2011, ac­cord­ing to CPJ re­search. At the time of CPJ’s most re­cent prison cen­sus, at least seven jour­nal­ists were in Syr­ian state pris­ons while many oth­ers are miss­ing.

Masalmeh, the me­dia ac­tivist, said he was smug­gled out of south­west Syria to Jor­dan four days ago, leav­ing his par­ents and ex­tended fam­ily in Daraa.

He said he had not heard from them in two days.

Mean­while, an Is­lamic State group af­fil­i­ate seized a vil­lage in south­ern Syria overnight from rebels who had agreed to a regime takeover, a Bri­tain­based mon­i­tor said Thurs­day.

Much of the south­ern prov­ince of Daraa had been quiet since Fri­day, when a cease­fire deal be­tween rebels and the Rus­sian-backed regime ended a nearly three-week govern­ment as­sault.

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