The Syrian pilot held up a piece of paper as his plane flew over rolling fields of green, yellow and brown surrounding a large city – Deraa. The veracity of the undated image was unconfirmed, but the message on that piece of paper was stark, and it would be borne out by the campaign that followed.
It said: “Here the sedition was born, and here we will bury it.”
Deraa has long had symbolic value as the cradle of the uprising in Syria. The detention and torture of teenagers who had scrawled anti-government graffiti on a school wall is often credited as the spark that led to widespread protests in 2011 against a totalitarian police state led by the Assad family.
But now the regime of Bashar al-Assad stands on the verge of total victory over the city that first defied his iron grip on power. Deraa’s rebels are defeated, the city’s arc closely following that of the broader uprising in Syria, now with little if any pretence of international outrage as Damascus, with unwavering support from Moscow and Tehran, barrels towards military victory.
“The other parts of the country that fell militarily, did so under immense firepower and international silence, perhaps even acquiescence and an agreement with the Russians to end the whole thing,” said one doctor in Deraa who requested anonymity because the province will soon be under complete government control. “They agree now that all of Syria must return to the regime’s bosom.”
The province has long had great strategic value – it straddles the Jordanian border, once a key economic lifeline for Syria, and is a stone’s throw away from the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Tel Aviv has lobbied Russia, the Assad regime’s most powerful backer, to prevent their Iranian allies and Tehran-sponsored militias fighting alongside the government from establishing a presence near the Israeli border.
Parts of southern Syria were designated a “de-escalation” zone by the US, Russia and Jordan late last year, to alleviate those concerns.
Parts of Deraa city have been under opposition control for years, and rebel groups controlled large chunks of the province including the Nassib border crossing with Jordan. They also battled ISIS militants, who controlled chunks of territory in the region.
Early days of Deraa uprising:
The rebels in Deraa, a coalition known in the past as the Southern Front, were often held up as an example of moderate opposition fighters who were vetted to ensure they had no extremists in their ranks. They received military and political backing from western powers including the US and UK as part of a military operations room based in Amman.
Parts of Deraa province, protected by implicit guarantees by those Western nations, were also showcased as cradles of new institutions that could thrive in democratic Syria, and where rebel fighters respected the authority of elected civilian councils.
As ever with Syria, the story was more complicated. The Southern Front factions were also riven by internal rivalries, complicated by the competing and evolving agendas of their backers. Officials with the rebel alliance have long complained that their international backers forbade them from carrying out major offensives against the government, and limited their weapons supplies, even as the opposition battled encroachment by Al Qaeda linked militants and Isis forces.
But even those rebel groups were abandoned by their western backers. The Assad government and their Russian allies turned to Deraa last month after a brutal campaign in eastern Ghouta, a rebellious agricultural region around the capital Damascus, which killed 2,000 people and witnessed the use once again of chemical weapons.
Faced with the prospect of calamitous violence, a quarter of a million people fled their towns and villages in Deraa towards the Jordanian and Israeli borders, where both governments bluntly said they would not allow refugees in, despite the harsh summer and the deaths of at least 12 children from scorpion bites and drinking contaminated water.
The rebels’ American allies said they would not intervene and, faced with the possibility of a brutal Russian-backed campaign, the opposition sued for peace, negotiating a ceasefire and surrender deal last week. The victory of government forces, which have surrounded the rebel-controlled parts of the city that birthed the Syrian uprising, is now a foregone conclusion.
Tens of thousands of civilians who fled the fighting have already returned to their towns, and the Syrian regime has taken control of the border crossing with Jordan for the first time since April 2015. The regime will likely next set its sights on Idlib, the province bordering Turkey in the north with more than 2 million displaced people, and which is under the control of mostly Islamist rebel groups and Al Qaeda-linked militants. Other parts of the country in the north and the east are under American and Turkish tutelage.
Deraa’s fall was accompanied by little of the traditional hand-wringing and condemnations of western capitals and UN officials, or even senior figures in the Syrian opposition.
When asked whether western attitudes towards the southern front had shifted, or if western policymakers had decided it was best for the conflict to simply end, one western diplomat said: “I don’t have an answer to that. Our perception of the Syrian conflict has obviously evolved, and our support has obviously evolved.”
Another diplomat said that the “moral hazard” of intervening in Syria, or continuing to back an opposition that has been defeated militarily, had risen.
The doctor in Deraa had a blunter assessment: “The revolution today has no friends.”