Daraa (Syria) (AFP) – Syria’s army entered rebel-held parts of Daraa city on Thursday, state media said, raising the national flag in the cradle of the uprising that sparked the country’s seven-year war.
After securing Damascus in May, President Bashar al-Assad is determined to oust rebels from a key southern region bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
A ceasefire announced last week stemmed nearly three weeks of regime bombardment on the southern province of Daraa, including the symbolic provincial capital of the same name.
Until then, the northern half of Daraa city was in regime hands, while the opposition held out in its southern neighbourhoods including Daraa al-Balad.
“Syrian army units enter Daraa al-Balad and raise the national flag in the main square,” the official news agency SANA reported on Thursday afternoon.
Late Wednesday, it had said the regime and rebels had reached a deal for opposition fighters to hand over their heavy weapons in opposition-held parts of the city.
On Thursday, an AFP correspondent in Daraa al-Balad saw a convoy of Russian military police and regime officers enter the city with journalists to raise the flag.
But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said the flag raising on Thursday was merely “symbolic”.
Measures to implement the so-called reconciliation deal for rebel-held parts of the city had not yet been implemented, it said.
“The rebels are still inside Daraa city,” Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said, but had not yet handed over their heavy weapons and there were no signs of any evacuations.
– ‘Full control’? –
Under the deal, “those (rebels) who want to settle their status with the regime will hand over their heavy weapons, keep their light arms and remain in the city”, he said.
“Those who refuse the deal will head out towards the north of Syria.”
The reconciliation deal for Daraa city is the latest in a string of such agreements that have seen the Russia-backed regime retake large parts of the country since 2015.
They usually follow blistering military campaigns and sometimes stifling sieges that effectively force the rebels into surrendering.
Previous such deals have seen thousands of rebels bused up to areas still under opposition control in the north of the country.
Activist Omar al-Hariri said the Russian military and regime troops had exited Daraa city on Thursday after raising the flag.
“We expect those against the so-called reconciliation to be evacuated in the next few days,” said the activist inside the city.
“Only after that will the regime enter completely and officially, and start inspections, allowing us to say the city is under its full control.”
The regime fully regaining its rule over Daraa city will be a hugely symbolic blow to the opposition.
In 2011, teenagers were arrested for scrawling anti-Assad slogans on the walls of a school in the poverty-stricken city, sparking mass protests against the government.
Several of those teenagers picked up arms after the uprising developed into a full-fledged conflict that has since killed more than 350,000 people and displaced millions.
– IS jihadists –
The war has since 2011 grown in complexity, drawing in world powers and involving jihadists.
The ceasefire deal for Daraa excludes jihadists linked to the Islamic State group who control a small corner of the province bordering both Jordan and the occupied Golan Heights.
Overnight, fighters of the IS affiliate seized the village of Heet east of that pocket from rebels who had agreed to a regime takeover, the Observatory said.
The regime has retaken more than 80 percent of Daraa province since June 19, following a bombing campaign that has killed more than 160 civilians, the Observatory says.
That bombardment also caused more than 320,000 people to flee their homes, the United Nations said, though many have returned since the ceasefire was announced Friday.
To the west of Daraa, the regime also wants to retake control of Quneitra province bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Israel launched missiles overnight against three regime positions in the province, its army said, after intercepting what it said was the incursion of an unarmed drone into its territory.
The attack came hours after Israel’s military fired a Patriot missile to knock down an unmanned aerial vehicle that strayed across the ceasefire line from Syria.
Israel is particularly worried about the presence of Iranians next door, where they have been backing Assad’s regime.
A series of strikes in Syria that have killed Iranians have been attributed to Israel in recent months.