By Suleiman Al-Khalidi
AMMAN, Sept 8 (Reuters) – Syrian army troops entered Deraa al Balaad, the birthplace of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad’s rule, for the first time since it lost control over the area a decade ago, residents, the army and former rebels said.
Army units set up at least nine checkpoints across the city under a Russian-brokered deal between the army and rebels that was finally agreed this week. Previous ones had faltered over disagreements over the extent of army control in the area and disarming rebels.
The government said state authority was finally established to restore order and securty in an area where the first peaceful protests against Assad family rule broke out in 2011 before security forces cracked down and the unrest developed into civil war.
Pro-Iran army units had for almost two-month bombarded the area in several failed attempts to take it, and laid seige to neighbourhoods that had over 50,000 people, preventing food and medicine from getting through. They also opened a corridor for many civilians to flee.
In 2018, Assad’s army, aided by Russian air power and Iranian-backed militias, retook southern Syria, bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights to the west.
Under a Russian-orchestrated deal then, the Western-backed Deraa rebels handed over heavy weapons but were allowed to continue their own administration of Deraa al Balaad.
Moscow also gave guarantees to Israel and the United States in 2018 that it would restrain Iranian-backed militias from expanding their influence in the sensitive border region.
After Deraa province surrendered, many residents chose to stay rather than head to remaining rebel-held areas in northern Syria, where tens of thousands of others displaced from recaptured areas have gathered.
Witnesses said dozens of Russian military police took positions in the war-ravaged zone as former rebels and civilians handed over light weapons in centres set up by the army as stipulated by the peace deal.
Local officials hope Russia will rein in Iranian-backed local militias whom they say act with impunity and now hold sway in the border area.
Many residents have been growing uneasy about Assad’s secret police, who have once more tightened their control and conducted a campaign of arrests has that has sowed widespread fear.
Deraa al Balaad and other towns in southern Syria have since the state regained control of the province held sporadic protests against Assad’s rule that are rare in areas under state control.
“I am devastated. We had become used to being free and we will now return back to living in humiliation,” said Jasem Mahameed, a local elder.
Assad’s forces have recaptured about 70% of the country since 2015 and large-scale fighting has subsided in the multi-sided conflict that has killed hundreds of thousands of people, driven millions from their homes, sucked in neighbours and world powers, and caused the largest displacement crisis since World War Two.
(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Angus MacSwan)