AMMAN: Syrian state vehicles, accompanied by Russian military police, entered part of the city of Daraa on Thursday to raise the national flag over an area held by rebels for years, witnesses said, leaving President Bashar al-Assad poised for another victory in the seven-year-long Syrian conflict.
Cranes erected a flag pole near the mosque where the eruption of large protests in March 2011 was widely seen as heralding the start of the conflict.
Government forces backed by Russia have recovered swathes of rebel-held Daraa Governorate at the border with Jordan in a major offensive that got underway last month and has forced many rebels to give up territory in negotiated surrender deals.
Two residents contacted said word had spread the state appointed governor of Daraa Governorate province was expected to attend the flag raising ceremony in a hugely symbolic move that pro-Assad supporters see as signalling the end of the revolt is near.
For many of Assad’s opponents, early peaceful protests about political freedoms and against authoritarian rule in a one-party system were violently repressed.
For the authorities, the protests, which began in Daraa, were instigated by Washington, Israel, and former colonial powers and financed by Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar to force Syria to yield to Western pressure.
Rebels holed up in part of the city of Daraa are still in talks with Russian officers, with many of them aiming to secure safe passage to opposition-held areas of northern Syria, rebel officials said.
A rebel official told Reuters negotiations were proceeding smoothly, with the Russians so far abiding by the terms of a deal that includes weapons handovers, evacuation of rebels opposed to the deal and return of state sovereignty.
“Everyone is committed to the agreements,” said Abu Jihad, adding rebels had already begun since late Wednesday handing over their heavy weapons.
A convoy of Russian military police was expected to enter the devastated area later on Thursday in the first such deployment inside the enclave where they were expected to set up observation posts and perform security deputies.
Rebels are pinning hopes on the Russian military police to prevent the army from taking revenge and entering certain areas after complaints of widespread looting and some arrests in other towns in Daraa Governorate they have gained control.
Some 2,000 rebel fighters are holed up in the opposition-held part of the city of Daraa, along with their families. Many want to leave due to fear of how the government will treat them.