Russian troops patrol birthplace of Syria uprising as fighting abates

AMMAN, Jordan – Russian military police began patrolling the last rebel bastion in southwest Syria on Wednesday under an agreement that halted an Iran-backed government offensive to retake the birthplace of the 2011 popular uprising, military and civilian sources said.

Russian generals brokered the deal late Tuesday to avert a bloody urban war after the heaviest bombing of the rebel core of the city of Deraa by elite Fourth Division government forces during a two-month siege.

Russian troops hoisted the Russian and Syrian flags in Deraa al Balaad district, where the first peaceful protests against Assad family rule broke out in 2011, before security forces cracked down and the unrest turned into civil war.

Under the deal, local rebels began handing over light weapons based on assurances that Russian military police would maintain patrols and checkpoints to prevent Iran-backed militias from entering and prevent feared reprisals, negotiators said.

President Bashar al-Assad’s army said the deal had finally restored state authority in an area where lawlessness has long ruled. Some residents of the long-standing Rebellenschanze were nervous and angry about the new regulation.

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“It is a sad day to see the flag of the Russian occupiers and the criminal regime in the cradle of the revolution that saw tens of thousands die for their cause,” said Abdallah Aba Zaid, a resident of Deraa, his wife and four children in Ein Russian air strike on rebel-held Deraa province at the beginning of the war.

In 2018, the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, supported by the Russian Air Force and Iranian-backed militias, captured the southwestern province, whose capital is Deraa and which borders Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights.

Under an agreement organized by Russia, the West-backed Deraa rebels surrendered heavy weapons but were allowed to continue their own administration of Deraa al-Balaad.

In 2018, Moscow also gave Israel and the US guarantees to prevent Iranian-backed militias from expanding their influence in the sensitive border region.

In talks leading up to the deal this week, representatives from Deraa al Balaad told Russian officers that any entry by the militias, who were a feared ally of Assad during the war, could result in reprisals, from a wave of arrests to summary executions .

“The Russian military must fulfill its obligation to prevent the Iranian militias from sowing destruction here,” said Abu Yusef Masalmeh, a Deraa al-Balaad negotiator, of the latest agreement.

The US State Department on Wednesday condemned the “ruthless attack by the Assad regime on Deraa, in which civilians were killed and thousands displaced”.

Most of Deraa al Balaad’s 50,000 residents fled after weeks of bombardment in which the army blocked the entry of food, medicine and fuel but opened a corridor for civilians, say local residents and local officials.

Assad turned the tables on rebels and Islamist groups who took up war against him after Russia intervened on his side in 2015, and has since recaptured around 70 percent of the country.

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