A rebel pocket at the heart of resistance to Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's regime partly surrendered to loyalist forces on Monday, opposition sources said.
The Russian-supervised surrender of dozens of fighters in Deraa Al Balad came after the regime hit the district with hundreds of rockets in the past 24 hours, and following pressure by Moscow on the besieged enclave to give in.
“Rebels who handed themselves in today are the least complicated part of the story in Deraa Al Balad,” said a Syrian military defector in Amman, who is in contact with the enclave.
“You still have core fighters refusing to surrender and those who insist on a limited military presence for the regime,” he said.
Deraa Al Balad and other opposition areas near the border with Jordan have had self-governance for most of the past decade, although Russian fire power restored the regime to the area three years ago.
A surrender deal Russia repeatedly offered an estimated several hundred fighters in Deraa Al Balad since the end of July would do away with this model.
It stipulates reinstalling Assad's military and security apparatus, which underpin the Alawite-dominated regime in the district. Syria is majority Sunni Muslim.
The leeway Russia had given the opposition in Deraa, diplomats in Jordan says, has been part of Russian attempts to convince international donors to pour reconstruction funds into regime areas.
Foreign donors have largely kept away from directly helping the regime rebuild. But UN aid agencies operate in regime areas.
Moscow has lifted major curbs it had imposed on the iron grip of the regime in southern Syria this year. Diplomats and opposition sources in Amman attributed the more hardline position by Moscow to a perceived weakening to the US position in the Middle East.
But it is still seen as keen to avoid mass population expulsions from southern Syria, although at least 50 people died in regime attacks last month on Deraa Al Balad and other areas in the south, opposition figures in Jordan said.
About 38,000 civilians fled Deraa Al Balad in the last month to areas near Russian positions around the city of Deraa.
They have not been expelled collectively to areas near Turkey, like other civilians in former rebel areas where Russian military intervention restored the regime since 2015.
The official Syrian news agency said “dozens of armed men in Deraa Al Balad this morning started to settle their status and hand over their weapons”.
The agency said the deal aimed at “removing the terrorists and settling the status of the armed men,” meaning a promise by the regime not to persecute them.
Regime forces, supported by pro-Iranian Hezbollah-linked militia, hit the enclave with at least 400 rockets on Sunday, residents and opposition figures said.
It was the heaviest barrage in a decade against Deraa, where pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in March 2011.
The protests in Deraa Al Balad and adjacent countryside marked the outbreak of the revolt against five decades of Assad family rule.
Deraa 24, a network of citizen journalists, published photos of a Russian troop carrier and Russian military personnel entering on Sunday.
Opposition sources in Amman said members of the regime's 15th army brigade, based in the adjacent governorate of Suweida, accompanied the Russian forces.
A proxy force loyal to Moscow but sympathetic to the rebels was also part of the Russian-supervised deployment.
Opposition sources say there has been no Russian guarantees that the main regime unit that has been attacking Deraa Al Balad would not enter the district.
It is the Fourth Division, headed by Maher Al Assad, younger brother of the Syrian President. The unit has close ties with Russia as well as Iran, the sources say.
Deraa Al Balad, and other opposition areas in southern Syria near the border with Jordan have largely been under self-governance although Russian firepower returned the regime to the area three years ago.
A Russian deal for the enclave to surrender collapsed twice in the past two months over the regime’s military presence in the area and how many rebels would be expelled.
Under the Russian deal some of the rebels would be allowed to stay in the district without their weapons and other expelled to areas in northern Syria close to Turkey that are outside the control of the regime.