AMMAN (Reuters) - Vehicles belonging to the Syrian state, accompanied by Russian military police, entered part of Deraa on Thursday to raise the national flag over the city, birthplace of the revolt that spawned the seven-year civil war.
In an event that marks another big victory for President Bashar al-Assad, cranes from the state-run Deraa municipal council erected a flagpole near the mosque where the eruption of large protests in March 2011 heralded the start of the conflict.
In the seven years since, hundreds of thousands of people have been killed and more than half of the country’s population has been driven from their homes.
The past three years have seen a steady succession of victories by Assad’s government and his Russian, Iranian and militia allies. An advance in recent weeks into the southwest near Israel and Jordan targets one of the last remaining large areas still under control of anti-Assad fighters, and has set hundreds of thousands more civilians to flight.
Rebels in parts of Deraa reached an agreement to surrender territory last Friday. Fighters holed up in a part of Deraa city are still in talks with Russian officers to secure safe passage out, rebel officials said.
A senior Russian military delegation entered the rebel-held area of the city on Thursday and began negotiations over its handover to state rule, rebel officials and a witness said.
A rebel official told Reuters negotiations were proceeding smoothly, with the Russians so far abiding by the terms of the deal, under which rebels would hand over weapons, and fighters who do not wish to live under state rule would be evacuated.
“Everyone is committed to the agreements,” said rebel official Abu Jihad, adding rebels had already begun since late Wednesday handing over their heavy weapons.
Two armoured vehicles with senior Russian officers entered the area of al Shayah in the devastated old city and began talks with commanders from the Free Syrian Army (FSA) on implementing the terms of the deal.
One rebel official said fighters hoped the Russians would keep their pledge to maintain a permanent Russian military police presence inside the enclave to protect civilians and former rebels who decide to remain under state rule.
Two residents contacted by Reuters said word had spread in Deraa that the state-appointed governor of the province was expected to attend a flag raising, a symbolic move that Assad supporters see as signaling that the end of the revolt is near.
Some 2,000 rebel fighters are holed up in the opposition-held part of Deraa city, along with their families. Many want to leave due to fear of how the government will treat them.
Deraa was the scene of protests during the “Arab Spring” of regional revolts in 2011, which were sharply repressed by Assad’s government. His opponents say the violent state crackdown left them no choice but to take up arms; Damascus says the protests were instigated by its enemies.
Rebels in the area hope the Russian military police will prevent the army from taking revenge and keep it out of some neighbourhoods, after complaints of looting and arrests when troops entered other nearby towns.
“There is a guarantee by the Russians that the army will not enter Deraa al Balad,” said Abu Bayan, a leader of a rebel faction in the city, referring to the name of the area.
Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Tom Perry and Peter Graff