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Syria: Army shells Daraa rebel enclave after Russian deal collapses

The deal collapsed on Friday after disagreements over extent of army control and disarming of former rebels
The Russian flag displayed on a Russian military vehicle in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in Syria's southern province of Daraa, on 1 September 2021 (AFP)

Syrian army units supported by Iran-backed militias resumed the shelling of the rebel enclave of Daraa in southern Syria on Sunday, after the collapse of a Russian-brokered deal to allow the government to reinstate full control over the area.

Russian generals brokered the deal late on Tuesday after the heaviest bombardment by Fourth Division government forces of the rebel-held core of the city of Daraa, known as Daraa al-Balad. The city has been under siege by government forces for more than two months, forcing many of the inhabitants to flee.

The deal collapsed on Friday after disagreements over the extent of army control and disarming former rebels. 

The area is the birthplace of peaceful protests in 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad and his family which were forcefully repressed before spreading across the country and descending into civil war.

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Rebels and local elders refused new army demands on Friday for the army to spread checkpoints across residential neighbourhoods of Daraa al-Balad and conduct house-to-house searches, saying the deal allowed for a less pervasive presence when it falls under complete state civilian administration.

They also said Russian military police should maintain patrols to bar militias who had encircled the enclave from entering.

"These are impossible new demands presented by the regime and the Russians. We reached a dead end," Adnan al Masalameh, the spokesman for the Daraa al-Balad negotiation committee, told Reuters.

Government forces, aided by Russian air power and militias, retook Daraa province in 2018. Moscow assured Israel and the United States at the time that it would prevent Iranian-backed militias encroaching on the border zone.

That deal forced thousands of western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons, but kept Assad's forces from entering Daraa al-Balad.

The army said on Sunday they had prepared buses for the evacuation of rebels opposed to the deal to a part of northwest Syria under control by Turkish-backed rebels.

"We insist on full army control and no return back to the state of lawlessness and chaos that prevailed," an army spokesperson said, accusing rebels of reneging on their pledges.

Several thousand former rebels, civilians and their families insisted they would only leave to Turkey and Jordan, countries seen as safe sanctuaries, local negotiators said.

Before the short-lived deal collapsed, at least half of the 50,000 people who inhabited Daraa al-Balad fled after weeks of shelling during which the army prevented food, medical and fuel supplies from coming in but opened a corridor for civilians to leave, residents and local officials say.

The enclave and other towns in southern Syria have, since the state regained control of the province, held sporadic protests against Assad's authoritarian rule that are rare in areas under state control.

Assad turned the tables on those arrayed against him in the war after Russia intervened on his side in 2015, and has since recaptured about 70 percent of the country.

The US State Department on Wednesday condemned what it called "the Assad regime's ruthless assault on Daraa that has killed civilians and displaced thousands".

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