Syrian regime tightens siege of Daraa opposition enclave

New Russian deal in southern Syria falters meaning regime troops may now take the area by force

People walk past the main courthouse in Deraa which was set on fire by demonstrators during protests demanding freedom and an end to corruption. File
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Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad on Thursday sent more troops to a besieged opposition enclave in southern Syria, a focal point of international currents shaping the civil war in the country.

Loyalist troops and pro-Iranian Shiite militia have been surrounding Daraa Al Balad since the end of July, marking the collapse of a three-year Russian de-escalation arrangement that was meant to allow the region to make peace with Damascus.

Another Russian-supervised deal this week partly broke the impasse and 60 people left the district, in the city of Daraa near the Jordan border.

The semi-official Al Watan newspaper on Thursday said “the army has brought in reinforcements to end terrorist control” over Daraa Al Balad.

Any military advance to retake the enclave is widely seen as needing a green light from Russia. Moscow sent military police this week into Daraa Al Balad to try to administer a new settlement with locals.

The deal came a day after Jordan’s King Abdullah met Russian leader Vladimir Putin on Monday and reportedly raised the issue of Daraa.

Jordan has been concerned about the spread of Hezbollah-linked Shiite militias near its border.

Those fears rose after Russia, Israel and the US in 2018 tacitly agreed on the return of Mr Al Assad's regime to Daraa and the rest of southern Syria.

The kingdom, diplomats in the region say, has been also trying to thwart an increase in drug smuggling, linked to Hezbollah and the regime.

The smuggling is from southern Syria into Jordan and on to the Gulf.

The new Russian settlement in Daraa has faltered, although witnesses said there was a lull in regime shelling on Daraa Al Balad on Thursday.

That was to allow at least 45 people to leave by regime buses to areas of Turkish influence in northern Syria, under the Russian supervised deal.

It was not clear how many of the 45 were fighters the regime said must leave Daraa Al Balad for the north.

The regime's official news agency described them as "terrorists and some of their family members", saying their expulsion "paves the way for ending terrorist control over the district

Lebanon's pro-Hezbollah Al Mayadeen television station said a regime deadline for 100 opposition fighters “to surrender themselves” expired on Thursday.

“The regime is playing with names, saying you gave us this man but not that,” said Raed, a citizen journalist in Daraa Al Balad, who gave only his first name.

“Food and water are running low and the regime is counting on exhausting us,” he said.

Ten fighters were transferred out of Daraa on Tuesday.

But the transfers stopped the next day after the two rebel commanders refused to leave and regime shelling resumed, killing one man in Daraa Al Balad.

Unlike many areas in Syria where Russia intervened militarily to restore the regime, forced population transfers in the south have been limited.

Opposition figures and international aid workers in Jordan say Russia did not let the regime exercise its iron fist on the area.

Regime presence in many parts of the south has been mostly limited to police stations and government departments, as opposed to the military and secret police, they say.

They fear that the restrictions Moscow imposed on the regime in the area in the past three years could be coming to an end.

A source in Daraa said at least 4,000 people fearful of regime reprisals in Daraa Al Balad could choose to leave to go to northern Syria or be forced to do so in the next few weeks.

Updated: August 26, 2021, 6:55 PM