AMMAN/BEIRUT (Reuters) - President Bashar al-Assad is poised to snuff out the Syrian rebellion in the city where it began more than seven years ago, as rebels said on Tuesday they were seeking to withdraw with Russian guarantees.
Government forces backed by Russia have seized most of Deraa province in the campaign that got under way last month and on Monday encircled rebel-held parts of Deraa city and seized the entire Jordanian frontier, which was once in opposition hands.
Assad, whose control was reduced to a fraction of Syria in 2015, now holds most of the country, with crucial help from Russia and Iran.
Deraa city was the scene of the first major anti-Assad protests in March 2011, which spiralled into a war now estimated to have killed half a million people.
The conflict has driven over 11 million people from their homes, with some 5.6 million Syrian refugees in neighbouring states and many more in Europe.
Government forces began advancing against rebels in Deraa province last month. Heavily outgunned, they surrendered quickly in some places. The United States, which once armed them, told opposition forces not to expect its intervention.
Deraa rebels last week agreed to lay down arms and cease fire in a deal brokered by Russia. Syrian and Russian forces then took control of the main crossing with Jordan.
Rebel leaders from Deraa city met Russian officers in the town of Busra al-Sham on Tuesday, said a rebel official, Abu Shaima. “The emphasis will be on the forced displacement”, he said, referring to the demand for safe passage to the opposition-held north.
The rebels were “completely besieged and all the cards are in the hand of the Russian guarantor”, said Abu Jihad, another rebel official.
A pro-Syrian government newspaper, al-Watan, said “the coming hours will be decisive on the level of ending the chapter of terrorism in Deraa city”.
The 2011 protests erupted in response to what a U.N. Commission of Inquiry reported as the detention and torture of a group of children accused of painting anti-government graffiti in Deraa. In April 2011, the army carried out the first military operation there, it said.
The government characterized the uprising as an insurgency by armed terrorists backed by its foreign enemies from the outset. More than seven years on, and with Assad pushing for outright military victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace settlement to the conflict.
The north and much of the east however remain outside his control and the presence of U.S. and Turkish forces in those areas will complicate further advances for Damascus.
In the Deraa town of Um al-Mayaden, retaken by the army, dozens of people chanted in support of Assad and the army during a government-organised trip on Tuesday, a witness said. The opposition flag could still be seen painted on the wall of a checkpoint that government forces had taken over.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, said army helicopters dropped leaflets on the rebel-held town of al-Haara saying “there is no place for militants”.
The government offensive is expected to turn next to nearby rebel-held areas of Quneitra province, at the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The offensive has triggered the biggest single displacement of civilians in the war, uprooting more than 320,000 people. Large numbers of people have moved again in the few days since the ceasefire was agreed, some returning to their villages.
Rachel Sider, Syria advocacy and information adviser with the Norwegian Refugee Council, said displaced people had been crossing back to areas that are subject to the agreement “because the expectation is that now there is a ceasefire that is holding, that will be the most stable and safe place”.
“But we also know that people still feel extremely scared. They are not very clear about who is in control of the places that they are from. We have seen a lot of confusion amongst people who are trying to make a decision about their families’ safety and their future,” she said.
Tens of thousands of displaced people are still thought to be sheltering in the Tel Shihab area of Deraa province, and many more are at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Additional reporting by Reuters TV; Writing by Tom Perry; Editing by William Maclean