The fall of Deraa: Syrian revolt folding under weight of Assad onslaught

The swift collapse of the southern front has left many contemplating the future of the revolution

A Syrian soldier is seen standing in the Nasib border crossing with Jordan in Deraa, Syria July 7, 2018.REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki
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When Abu Al Baraa was given a choice to stay in his home city of Deraa, or leave with Syria’s latest exiles, he packed his suitcase. He left the birthplace of the uprising against President Bashar Al Assad, boarding a bus bound for the north, where Turkish-backed proxy militias hold sway.

Just days before, the Syrian regime had raised its flag atop the governor’s mansion in the city where the first protests against the Assads' totalitarian rule broke out, in a deep psychological blow to the rebellion. He left as a surrender deal was negotiated, weeks into a violent bombardment backed by Russia and aimed at vanquishing what rebels remained in the country’s south.

“It broke our back,” said Al Baraa, who declined to give his full name over safety concerns, about the flag raising. “It was a great success for the regime and all its auxiliary forces, who succeeded in extinguishing the revolution.”

"It started in Deraa, and it ended in Deraa," he told The National.

Syrian war: 

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Two images released over the last week encapsulated the trajectory of the Syrian uprising, now on the verge of military defeat after seven years of violence, displacement, chemical attacks and international indifference. The first was the raising of the flag in Deraa, where demonstrations against the torture of teenagers who scrawled anti-government graffiti began and then spread throughout the country.

The second was of dozens of Syrians from refugee camps in Quneitra, 80 kilometres away from Deraa and straddling the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Hours into an intense bombardment of nearby towns to force their surrender and the final defeat of the southern rebels, the desperate refugees walked to the Israeli fence separating the occupied Golan from Syria, and chanted: “We want international protection.” They were turned away.

Both the images and the desperation they portrayed heralded the impending and swift conclusion of a major government offensive to reclaim control of southern Syria, one backed by Russian airpower and which easily subdued what was once a major stronghold of the Western-backed opposition.

The south’s triumphant rebellion against the Assad regime, its rebels’ support by international powers, and then its unceremonious fall before the military might of the regime and its allies in Moscow and Tehran offered a glimpse in microcosm into the story of the uprising. Once touted as exemplary moderate rebels, they were abandoned at the start of the latest month-long offensive.

“It’s definitely a symbolic victory for the regime, winning control over this area that offered the spark of the revolution,” said one former fighter who defected from the regime to join the southern rebels. “The abandonment of the international community is clear, their messages, from the Americans especially, were clear that we will not come to your aid.”

He added: “This international abandonment allowed the Russians to establish complete control over negotiations, which in reality are negotiations taking place under bombs, artillery and Russian airstrikes. They would always say that if there were no negotiations, there are 40 planes ready to bomb all military and civilian areas.”

A Syrian heavy artillery unit shoots in Deraa province, Syria, in this still image from a video obtained on July 5, 2018. CENTRAL MILITARY MEDIA/via REUTERS   THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES.
A Syrian heavy artillery unit shoots in Deraa province, Syria, in this still image from a video obtained on July 5, 2018. Hezbollah War Media Center

More than 160,000 people remain stranded near the Golan Heights border, and tens of thousands more are waiting by the Jordanian border. The Assad regime said on Thursday it was nearing an agreement that would formalize its victory in Quneitra, border the Golan, after Deraa, near Jordan, returning to its pre-2011 positions in southern Syria.

With the conquest of the south, a region of great strategic significance because of its proximity to Israel, the regime’s attention will now turn to Idlib, where a hodgepodge of Islamist rebels and al-Qaida-linked militants are in power.

On Thursday the Assad regime concluded an agreement with the militia known as HTS, a coalition of fighters led by the former al-Qaida wing in Syria. The deal led to the forced displacement of Shia civilians and fighters from two towns in Idlib, Fua and Kefraya, that have been under siege by rebels for three years.

Under the deal, the residents of the two towns, some 7,000 in total, were forcibly displaced from their homes to the city of Aleppo in buses mirroring the image of rebels and opposition civilians who have been bused out themselves after surrender deals to Idlib.

Busses transporting residents and fighters from the towns of Fuaa and Kefraya arrive in the Syrian regime-held territory of the al-Eis crossing point south of Aleppo on July 19, 2018.  Several thousand residents evacuated two pro-regime towns in northern Syria today, putting an end to one of the longest sieges of the country's seven-year civil war.
Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib province were the last remaining areas under blockade in Syria and a rare example of pro-government towns surrounded by rebel forces.  / AFP / George OURFALIAN
Buses transporting residents and fighters from the towns of Fuaa and Kefraya arrive in the Syrian regime-held territory of the al-Eis crossing point south of Aleppo on July 19, 2018. AFP

Fua and Kefraya were a rare case of a rebel siege in a war where hundreds of thousands of civilians at any time were living under blockade. HTS insisted that the deal, which was reportedly brokered by Russia and Turkey, would secure Idlib and led to the release of 1,500 prisoners by the government and its ally, Hezbollah.

But the departure of Fua and Kefraya’s population, whose homes HTS said will be used to house refugees from other parts of the country, has deepened the demographic shifts that have become a key feature of Syria’s conflict. Most of the nearly 3 million living in Idlib are Sunnis displaced from other parts of the country.

Though HTS has said in public statements that the deal aims to protect Idlib, observers now fear the board has been set for a major offensive by the regime into the province. The plight of Fua and Kefraya’s civilians has long been a rallying cry for the government and its allies, and with them safe from the grasp of HTS, there is little to deter a regime advance, checked as it has been so far by the presence of Turkish observers along the frontlines.

But the swift collapse of the southern front, with nary a condemnation from the international community, has left many contemplating the future of a revolution turned civil war and now collapsing under the weight of its military defeat. Its last stronghold is beset by factional fights and the presence of extremists, while to the north Turkish proxies control the territory and in the east American-backed Kurdish fighters remain in power.

“At the end of the day, it isn’t the end of the revolution,” said the southern front official. “The revolution was not about carrying arms, but Assad and Russia’s argument was always that if there was one armed individual in Syria, Assad will always be in power, ready to bring in Russia or Iran or all the thugs in the world to fight them.”

“Therefore perhaps the military defeat will lead to political action,” he said.