Assad claims Jordanian border crossing
Rebels along Syria’s Jordanian border have agreed to give up their arms in a Russian-brokered ceasefire deal on Friday, rebel sources said, surrendering Deraa province to the government in another major victory for President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies.
The Syrian government recovered the Nassib border crossing with Jordan, held by rebels for three years, state media reported, after an assault in insurgent territory along the frontier backed by Russian air strikes. Retaking the crossing opens the potential for the resumption of trade vital to both Syria’s reconstruction as well as Jordan’s ailing economy.
Rebel sources said that Russia would guarantee the safe return of civilians who fled the government offensive in the biggest exodus of the war, with 320,000 people uprooted, many of whom remain stranded along the borders of both Jordan and towards the Israeli occupied Golan.
Seven years into the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Assad now commands most of Syria with his allies' help. However, the significant rebel enclave of Idlib remains in the north, close to the Turkish border, while large swathes of land to the east of the Euphrates remains in the hands of the Kurdish dominated Syrian Democratic Forces and their American allies.
As Assad seeks victory, little hope of a negotiated peace remains, with six million Syrians abroad as refugees and 6.5 million more internally displaced, most of whom are reported to have primarily fled the regime.
Russia has been at the forefront of the Deraa campaign, both bombing and negotiating with rebels who were told at the start of the offensive to expect no help from the United States, despite the internationally negotiated ‘de escalation zone’ in place within the region.
As part of the surrender deal, Russian guarantees will be extended to rebel fighters seeking to "settle their status" with the government, a process by which former insurgents accept to live under state rule again rather than decamp to the rebel enclave of Idlib in Syria’s north, the rebel sources said.
It reflects the terms of previous opposition surrenders, but according to rebel sources, they also secured a concession that some government forces would withdraw from the area.
The deal is to be rolled out across rebel-held areas of Deraa in phases, but there is no timeline as yet, Abu Shaima, spokesman for an operations room for rebels under the Free Syrian Army banner told Reuters.
The initial phases will cover the area along the border with Jordan, rather than the parts of north-western Deraa around the city of Nawa, the agency reported.
He said Syrian and Russian jets had pummelled towns across the south-west and villages near the border crossing.
According to Abu Shaima, the majority of the region’s hospitals had shut down due to the destruction of insurgent territory, which now barely had access to water or electricity.
With much of the Jordanian border secured, Assad's next target will likely be the rebel-held areas of Quneitra province at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, where fighting between insurgents and the government escalated on Friday.
Israel said it had targeted a Syrian army post that shelled a frontier "buffer zone" in the Golan area.
Assad's Iran-backed allies are also reported to be fighting in the campaign, defying Israeli and Russian demands they keep out of the border area. Hezbollah is helping lead the offensive but keeping a low profile, pro-Damascus sources told Reuters.
Both Israel and Jordan, which beefed up their borders, said they would not let refugees in but distributed aid inside Syria.
(Arab Weekly staff and news agencies)