Russian army enters Syria's Deraa after rebel deal, halting bombardment

Deraa Al Balad kept up defiance against Assad despite Russian support for the regime

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The Russian military entered a rebel district in southern Syria on Wednesday after an overnight deal that halted ferocious bombing on the neighbourhood, sources in opposition to the government said.

The enclave of Deraa Al Balad has emerged as a symbol of sustained defiance against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad over the past decade, despite falling in and out of regime control. The district was central to the 2011 revolt against five decades of Assad family rule.

The district became a testbed of a Russian posture in Syria that employed less force than other regions, where Moscow's military intervention in 2015 restored the regime and was accompanied by mass expulsions of rebels and civilians to border areas with Turkey.

“Russian military police are in Deraa Al Balad,” said an opposition figure in Amman in contact with the rebels.

Photos taken by residents in the area and shown to The National showed a convoy of Russian army personnel in a street of Deraa Al Balad, five kilometres from the border with Jordan.

The district has been besieged over the past month by the Fourth Division, a praetorian guard division headed by Al Assad’s brother Maher Al Assad, and Hezbollah-linked militias supported by Iran.

Jordanian authorities have not commented on the situation in Deraa, despite its proximity to the kingdom and close family links between the rebels and clans in northern Jordan.

As regime strikes increased last week, King Abdullah told President Vladimir Putin at a meeting near Moscow that Russia "plays the most stable role" toward a peaceful solution in Syria.

A Western diplomat in Amman said that although the king reportedly raised the issue of Deraa at the meeting, the impact of his visit to Moscow on the course of events in southern Syria appeared to have been minimal.

The Russian-supervised deal in Deraa, opposition sources said, is similar to conditions Moscow has been pressuring the rebels to accept over the past month. They include placing five regime military positions in the area and expelling some of the 400 rebels in the district to areas under the Turkish sphere of influence in northern Syria.

The deal stipulates that the other rebels should hand over their weapons and engage in “personal settlements” with the regime under which they would not be persecuted.

TOPSHOT - A Syrian rebel fighter aims his Kalashnikov assault rifle as he stands near the frontline against government forces west of the embattled southern city of Daraa on July 3, 2018.  / AFP / Mohamad ABAZEED

But a civil opposition figure in Deraa Al Balad said that a proxy force loyal to Moscow comprising former rebels would accompany the regime’s military and mitigate its presence in the district.

“There will still be armed opposition in Deraa Al Balad. Under the table, the deal is less harsh than it seems,” he said. “It produces no victors”.

Members of the proxy force, known as the Fifth Corps, reportedly accompanied the Russian military into Deraa Al Balad on Wednesday,

Other opposition sources in Amman said some of the rebels in the district started handing their light weapons to the regime under Russian supervision.

Around 400 Fourth Division members withdrew at the same time from the vicinity of Deraa Al Balad, they said.

They said the regime also allowed dozens of families who had fled the district over the last month to areas near Russian positions in the vicinity of Deraa to return to their homes.

Around 50 people were reportedly killed from both sides in Deraa and the surrounding countryside since the conflict in southern Syria escalated in late July.

Rebels in Deraa and in outlaying opposition regions in the south launched pre-emptive strikes five weeks ago aimed at what they described as preventing the regime and its militia allies from overrunning the area.

The Russian military entered Deraa Al Balad last week under similar conditions to the truce on Wednesday.

But the deal collapsed after most of 100 rebels the regime wanted expelled refused to hand themselves in. Another opposition source in contact with the enclave cautioned that the latest deal might also collapse if Russia lets the regime “run amok” in Deraa Al Balad.

"Last week’s scenario could repeat itself if the regime acts triumphant,” he said.

Updated: September 02, 2021, 8:30 AM