Deraa uprising: Moscow puts brakes on Syria's military advance

Assad regime's government forces and militias linked to Hezbollah have surrounded the old southern city of Deraa

The outright military victory for which the Assad regime is clamouring in the region of southern Syria would clash with Moscow’s interests, Western and Arab diplomats said on Tuesday.

Since the end of June, Syrian government forces and militias linked to Hezbollah have surrounded the old southern city of Deraa, known as Deaa Al Balad, and other rebel strongholds in the countryside.

Armed confrontations erupted and nearly eroded the control of the regime in large parts of Deraa governorate, which was retaken by the government forces three years ago.

Smoke rises from al-Harak town, as seen from Deraa countryside, Syria June 25, 2018. REUTERS/Alaa al-Faqir

The area, the birthplace of the Syrian revolt in 2011 against five decades of Assad family rule, is near Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

The rebels surrendered their heavy weapons in 2018 after a tacit deal between Russia, the US and Israel to hand back territory to the regime. The Russians, who bombed Deraa province and other rebel regions in Syria, supervised the deal.

The two sides had reached a fragile truce on July 30 that was extended for 48 hours, but they were breached repeatedly when the Syrian military and militias supported by Iran launched an operation on the city.

Members of a praetorian guards unit at the top of the military hierarchy of the Assad regime were seen in videos, posted in late July on the Syrian Army’s social media accounts, shouting for revenge as they surrounded Deraa's old city.

Days earlier rebels broke through their lines and captured more than 140 of the regime's military and security personnel across the southern province. The rebels ordered many of the prisoners to shout slogans denouncing President Bashar Al Assad and filmed them doing so.

They released the prisoners in compliance with a request from the Russian military, which on Saturday imposed a truce between the two sides.

“We are coming to take our retribution,” shouted members of the Fourth Armoured Division in a video circulated this week on pro-regime internet sites.

“With our spirit with our blood we sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar,” they chanted in front of Russian tanks belonging to the unit.

The Fourth Division is headed by Mr Al Assad’s younger brother Maher, the most dominant commander in the regime’s military.

His men are putting on a show of force and Deraa residents say the Fourth Division is shelling the city in breach of the truce.

The sources said a Russian officer, who goes by the name of Assadullah and is negotiating with the rebels, on Monday urged them to meet regime demands to enter Old Deraa and other areas ”so the situation could be contained”.

But Mr Al Assad’s military does not appear to have Russia's approval to storm old Deraa, several diplomats monitoring the situation from Jordan say.

“Deraa seems the only place in Syria where Moscow wants soft power to succeed,” said one European diplomat. “Moscow might need at least one area of Syria where there is no more regime massacres and decentralisation that could encourage international donors to put up money for reconstruction."

The Russian approach to Deraa contrasts markedly with Moscow having given leeway for the regime and allied militia supported by Iran to overrun rebel areas that surrendered after the Russian military intervention in late 2015.

Syrian government forces' soldiers hold their weapons during a government guided tour in the village of al-Sourah, province of Deraa. Youssef Karwashan / AFP

Tass news agency last week quoted Russian mediator Vadim Kulit as saying that the regime’s military “have stabilised the situation” in Deraa. He said there is an agreement between the regime and the rebels “on settling the situation".

Russian planes bombed Deraa in 2018 as Moscow negotiated a tacit deal with Israel and the United States for the Assad regime to recapture Deraa.

Unlike areas where Russian military intervention tilted the civil war in favour of the regime and its pro-Iranian Shiite militia allies, the Deraa deal was not a total rebel surrender.

It was not followed by depopulation of civilians, the backbone of the 2011 revolt, which broke out in Deraa.

Thousands of civilians, along with many rebels, left in green Chinese buses to areas controlled by Turkish-allied groups in northern Syria since 2015.

And unlike numerous rebel regions since 2015, Russian planes did not bomb Old Deraa to help the regime and its militia allies, supervised by Hezbollah, advance.

The 2018 deal resulted in the rebels, who were supported mainly by Arab States and the US, handing over Deraa and swathes of southern Syria to the regime. They surrendered their heavy weapons.

But regime presence in former rebel areas of Deraa province was limited mostly to police stations and government departments.

Ibrahim, a notable figure from Deraa, said Moscow realises that the regime’s reliance on brute force is not sustainable.

“I think Moscow does not want to see another green bus scenario in Deraa,” he said by WhatsApp from Deraa.

“It is impossible for the central government in Damascus to impose its control all over Syria without a comprehensive international agreement."

The renewed uprising in Deraa forced Jordan at the weekend to close the main land border crossing with Syria.

The authorities in Amman eased cargo and other restrictions at the Nassib frontier.

The move came after King Abdullah called from Washington last month for accommodation with Mr Al Assad, saying the Syrian President had shown “longevity”. But the king said any international reconstruction aid would need to be contingent on political reform.

“Many in the international community realise that the only thing the regime can do is survival,” a senior Jordanian official said on condition of anonymity.

“Show me one regime area of Syria where reconstruction is possible,” the official said. “Its grip has to ease for that to happen.”

Updated: August 3rd 2021, 4:38 PM