Syrian state vehicles, accompanied by Russian military police, entered part of Daraa city on Thursday and raised the national flag over an area held by rebels for years, witnesses said, leaving President Bashar al-Assad poised for another big victory in the seven-year-long Syrian conflict.
Cranes from the state-run Daraa municipal council erected a flag pole near the mosque where the eruption of large protests in March 2011 was widely seen as heralding the start of the conflict.
As southern Syria is preparing for the return of Assad, Israel, more or less, has also gotten used to the idea of the expected result: The reestablishment of control by Assad’s forces over the entire region along the border with Israel. “The story is over,” a senior defense official told Haaretz. The IDF’s Northern Command estimates the final push will take a few weeks, once the order is given.
The IDF’s deployment and preparations along the Syrian border focus on very specific things: reinforcing armored and artillery units, providing aid to the refugees fleeing to the border region from the horror of the regime’s bombing in the Daraa Province, and a high level of readiness for medical teams in case it becomes necessary to treat very large numbers of wounded.
Government forces backed by Russia have recovered swathes of rebel-held Deraa province at the border with Jordan in a major offensive that got underway last month and has forced many rebels to give up territory in negotiated surrender deals.
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Two residents contacted said word had spread the state appointed governor of Daraa province was expected to attend the flag raising ceremony in a hugely symbolic move that pro-Assad supporters see as signaling the end of the revolt is near.
For many of Assad's opponents, early peaceful protests about political freedoms and against authoritarian rule in a one-party system were violently repressed.
For the authorities, the protests, which began in Daraa, were instigated by Washington, Israel and former colonial powers and financed by Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to force Syria to yield to Western pressure.
Rebels holed up in part of Daraa city are still in talks with Russian officers, with many of them aiming to secure safe passage to opposition-held areas of northern Syria, rebel officials said.
A rebel official told Reuters negotiations were proceeding smoothly, with the Russians so far abiding by the terms of a deal that includes weapons handovers, evacuation of rebels opposed to the deal and return of state sovereignty.
"Everyone is committed to the agreements," said Abu Jihad, adding rebels had already begun since late Wednesday handing over their heavy weapons.
A convoy of Russian military police was expected to enter the devastated area later on Thursday in the first such deployment inside the enclave where they were expected to set up observation posts and perform security deputies.
Rebels are pinning hopes on the Russian military police to prevent the army from taking revenge and entering certain areas after complaints of widespread looting and some arrests in other towns in Daraa province they have gained control.
"There is a guarantee by the Russians that the army will not enter Daraa al Balad," said Abu Bayan, a leader of a rebel faction in the city, referring to the name of the area.
Some 2,000 rebel fighters are holed up in the opposition-held part of Daraa city, along with their families. Many want to leave due to fear of how the government will treat them.