Syria’s army has recaptured the city where the uprising against the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began in 2011.
Accompanied by Russian military police, Syrian troops entered the last rebel-held enclave in the southern city of Deraa and raised the national flag, Syrian state media reported Friday.
The army had already recaptured the surrounding areas in an offensive that began June 19, but the victory in Deraa city marks a major turning point in the Assad regime’s campaign to defeat various rebel and jihadist groups along Syria’s borders with Jordan and Israel.
As in other defeats, rebels remaining in Deraa have reportedly agreed to surrender in exchange for safe passage to rebel-held territory in northern Idlib province. Russian forces are brokering the deal, which includes weapons transfers to the government, the evacuation of rebels who remain opposed to surrender, and the return of state control.
“Everyone is committed to the agreements,” rebel spokesman Abu Jihad told Reuters, adding that rebel fighters had begun handing over their heavy weapons as early as Wednesday.
The fall of Deraa gives Assad a symbolic and strategic victory as his forces continue the offensive in southwestern Syria. The city is where the Syrian uprising began in 2011, when pro-democracy demonstrations erupted in response to the arrest of teenagers who had spray-painted anti-regime slogans on a school wall.
When government forces used deadly force to crack down on the protesters, the demonstrations spread to other cities across the country. The violence escalated rapidly as various anti-Assad jihadist groups were drawn into the conflict, and the country descended into a brutal civil war that has killed more than 350,000 people and displaced at least 10 million others.
With the support of Russian air power and an Iranian-backed militia, Syrian forces have clawed back most rebel-held terrorists in the country. Government forces defeated rebel groups in Damascus and the surrounding area in April, returning all central Syria to Assad’s control for the first time since the war began. (RELATED: ISIS Militants Leave Damascus Under Evacuation Deal As Assad Takes Full Control Of Capital)
With the victory in Deraa, the government is poised to do the same in southwest Syria, near the border with Jordan and the Israel-controlled Golan Heights.
Still, pockets of resistance remain, and jihadist groups are still capable of fierce resistance to the numerically superior, Russian-backed Syrian army. The Islamic State group controls a sliver of territory on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights border, and rebel militia are active along the Jordanian border.
The government offensive to defeat those groups has caused an internal refugee crisis as about 300,000 people have been forced to flee their homes, the BBC reports. Many are now living in makeshift camps on the border, after Jordan and Israel refused to let the displaced residents enter.
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