Damascus claims control over symbolic city of Daraa
TUNIS - The Syrian regime has raised its flag over the south-western city of Daraa, the symbolic cradle of the revolution, as Russian negotiators work to determine the precise exit of large numbers of rebels.
President Bashar Assad’s self-proclaimed victory there, three months after Damascus secured full control over Eastern Ghouta, sends “a signal that nowhere in Syria that has risen up against him will remain outside his reach,” analyst Nicholas Heras told Agence France-Presse.
However, as Damascus' forces consolidate their control of Syria's south-west, and the tricky proposition of how to approach the disputed Golan lies ahead, the town’s significance is more symbolic than tactical.
The campaign to retake Daraa and its surrounding countryside began on June 19, pushing refugees in their hundreds of thousands to the closed borders of Jordan and Israel. On July 9, Syrian regime forces surrounded the city that first rose against them in 2011.
As of July 12, the Syrian state controlled around 80% of the city, Daraa governor Mohamed al-Hanous said, while the negotiated surrender of the remaining rebel strongholds was already underway, state media reported.
In keeping with the Russian template that has been rolled out in other embattled cities in Syria, rebels that are unwilling to hand over their medium and heavy weaponry must leave Daraa with their families to the bulging northern enclave of Idlib on Syria’s border.
Human rights monitors say the arrangements amount to a programme of political and demographic engineering in Syria to secure Assad's rule.
According to a source within Daraa quoted by The Associated Press, Russian negotiators are trying to ensure that both rebels and civilians remain in the defeated city, speaking of the desperate conditions and exposure to government airstrikes in the northern province.
"Idlib is a crematory," a media activist told AP on condition of anonymity the Russian mediators had warned him.
Under the terms of the ceasefire, Russian military police will maintain public order within the city, gradually shifting it back to government rule, the media activist added.
The fighting that preceded the regime’s self-proclaimed victory in Daraa has little to do with the city's credited role in sparking the Syrian revolution in 2011.
Following the downfall of Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, a number of schoolboys from Daraa sprayed an anti-Assad slogan with graffiti on their school’s walls, which is said to have been the spark for wider protests throughout the city.
The boys’ provocative phrase, “Doctor, your turn,” was a reference to Assad’s former profession as an ophthalmologist.
The schoolboys, who were subsequently arrested and tortured by police, they said, became a rallying cry for protests throughout the country, and a central part of Darra’s legacy as the birthplace of the revolution.