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Syria: Russian troops patrol rebel enclave of Daraa following truce

Deployment of Russian forces comes after a more than two-month crippling government siege of opposition held district of city
A Russian soldier is pictured in Daraa al-Balad in Syria's southern province of Daraa on 1 September 2021 (AFP)

Russian military police began patrolling the last rebel bastion in Syria's southwest on Wednesday, as part of a deal that halted an offensive by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to retake the birthplace of the 2011 popular uprising, military and civilian sources said.

Russian generals brokered the deal late on Tuesday to avert bloody urban warfare after the heaviest bombardment by Fourth Division government forces of the rebel-held core of the city of Daraa. The city has been under siege by government forces for over two months.

Russian troops hoisted the Russian and Syrian government flags inside the Daraa al-Balad district, where the first peaceful protests against Assad family rule broke out in 2011, before security forces cracked down on dissent and the unrest morphed into civil war.

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

The deployment came after dozens of rebels were bussed from the district to opposition-held territory in Syria's north last week, before intense fighting resumed at the weekend, hampering ceasefire efforts.

"Implementation has started of the latest ceasefire agreement with the deployment of Russian military police inside Daraa al-Balad," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Under the terms of the deal, the Syrian government would erect three checkpoints inside Daraa al-Balad, having left the area for years under the control of former rebel fighters, said the UK-based activist group.

Opposition fighters that choose to remain in Daraa-al-Balad would have to surrender their firearms, the Observatory added, saying those who reject a deal will be evacuated.

The government's official Sana news agency on Wednesday published photos of crowds at so-called "reconciliation centres" set-up in Daraa al-Balad.

"Armed fighters in Daraa al-Balad started handing over their weapons and settling their status at reconciliation centres," it said.

'Sad day'

Daraa was returned to government control in 2018 under a previous Moscow-backed truce that had allowed rebels to stay in some areas of Daraa province.

However, a low-level insurgency has been waged against Iran-backed government forces and rebels who signed reconciliation agreements with Damascus, with dozens of assassinations since 2020.

In talks that yielded this week's deal, local negotiators in Daraa al-Balad told Russian officers that any entry of the militias that have been a feared ally of Assad during the war could lead to reprisals, from arrests to summary executions.

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"The Russian military must live up to their commitment to prevent Iran's militias from sowing destruction here," negotiator Abu Yousef Masalmeh told Reuters of the latest deal.

Abdallah Abu Zaid, a Daraa resident whose wife and four children died in a Russian air strike earlier in the war, said: "It is a sad day to see the flag of the Russian occupier and the criminal regime in the cradle of the revolution that has seen tens of thousands die for its cause."

Opposition activist Omar al-Hariri told AFP the new truce suggested a government push to end rebel influence over several parts of the province where the state has yet to fully deploy.

The agreement "cancels the exceptional status that Daraa gained three years ago," by allowing rebels to keep their weapons and remain in control of several areas, including Daraa al-Balad, he said.

"The Syrian regime is now expected to aim at opposition hubs in Daraa's western countryside with the goal of securing the same results," Hariri added.

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

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".