The Syrian regime on Friday reached a deal with rebels for the surrender of the remaining opposition-held cities and towns in the southern province of Daraa, the cradle of the uprising against Bashar al-Assad.
The deal comes more than two weeks into a devastating Russian-backed government offensive on rebel-held areas of southern Syria close to Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
‘An agreement has been reached between the Syrian government and the terrorist groups’ that includes ‘the handover of heavy and medium weapons in all cities and towns’, the official SANA news agency said.
Fighters who reject the agreement will be evacuated with their families to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, it added.
The deal also provides for government forces to take over ‘all observation posts along the Syrian-Jordanian border’, it said, hours after the regime regained control of the vital Nassib border crossing with Jordan.
While the offensive has targeted parts of neighbouring Quneitra and Sweida provinces, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the deal only concerned Daraa province.
The United Nations says the assault, which began on June 19, has pushed more than 320,000 people to flee, but SANA said the deal would see them return to their homes.
Rebel spokesman Hussein Abazeed said that ‘the deal was the best we could achieve to save the lives of our fighters’.
It came after the collapse of a previous round of talks on Wednesday ushered in a day-long volley of air strikes, barrel bombs and missiles that ultimately pressured rebels to return to the table.
The talks resumed at around midday on Friday in the town of Busra al-Sham, freshly recaptured by government troops.
Moscow, which intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, has employed a carrot-and-stick strategy of intense bombardment alongside talks that has allowed the regime to recapture swathes of territory.
Under Russian-backed ‘reconciliation’ deals, rebels hand over heavy weapons, local police take control of the area and government institutions resume operations.
More than 30 rebel towns have agreed to fall back under regime control through similar agreements, more than doubling the government’s hold on Daraa province to about 70 per cent.
Russian forces and civilian border officials from the Syrian government reached the Nassib crossing ‘without a fight’, Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman said Friday.
State news agency SANA reported that Syria’s two-starred flag had been raised over the crossing.
Rebels captured the Nassib border point in April 2015, closing off one of the Syrian government’s most vibrant trade routes.
With its recapture, the government in Damascus is hoping to reopen a crucial economic lifeline with neighbouring Jordan.
‘The Assad government wants both Daraa city and the Nassib border crossing,’ said Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Washington-based Centre for a New American Security.
‘Daraa is hugely symbolic for Assad because it is the cradle of the Syrian revolution, and Nassib allows the Assad government to get the Jordanians invested in a return of the regime in the southwest through the benefits to Jordan from reopened trade with Syria,’ Heras said.
After securing areas around the capital this year, president Bashar al-Assad last month turned to the south, launching a bombing campaign on rebel areas on June 19.
Regime forces had been moving quickly toward Nassib before the takeover was announced.
Their heavy bombing of surrounding towns, and the surrender of others, had already put regime troops within three kilometres of the border, according to the Observatory.
Tense talks focused on the fate of Daraa city and its western countryside dragged late into Friday, said rebel spokesman Abazeed.
He told AFP there was preliminary agreement on the safe transfer of at least 6,000 people, including rebels and civilians, to the northwestern province of Idlib.
According to rebel sources, Moscow had previously rejected a phased surrender of heavy arms and any population transfers.
Rebel territory in the south was included in a ceasefire brokered last year by Russia, the United States and Jordan, but that has done little to stem violence.
As well as forcing hundreds of thousands to flee, the assault has left more than 150 civilians dead, according to the Observatory.
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