Syrian-regime forces backing President Bashar al-Assad have regained control of the southwestern city of Deraa and many of the surrounding towns in the Deraa Province following a 20-day offensive that began on June 19.
Rebel troops, which have controlled the area for the last three years, reached a Russian-brokered ceasefire agreement with the Assad-regime on Friday, July 6. The ceasefire has, for now, put an end to the fighting and allowed displaced inhabitants to return home.
Under the deal, pro-Assad forces will deploy along the Syrian-Jordanian border, while rebels will surrender the Nasib Border Crossing, which links Syria and Jordan, as well as give up their weapons, which began on July 14. The deal also allows for opposition militants, most of whom are members of the Southern Front alliance, to be evacuated to the rebel-controlled Idlib province in the northwest of the county or to settle their status with the regime under Russian protection. On Sunday, July 15, AFP reported that hundreds of fighters and some of their relatives began evacuating Deraa in accordance with the ceasefire agreement.
With regard to the humanitarian situation, UN humanitarian coordinator in Jordan, Anders Pederson, confirmed that tens of thousands of Deraa residents who fled to the Jordanian border have begun to return home. The relentless aerial bombardment of the Deraa province killed an estimated 200 civilians according to the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and displaced another 320,000 people. Some 60,000 people attempted to escape into Jordan, but were denied entry. Though Jordan offered some humanitarian aid, such as food and water, it kept its border closed, explaining that it is already dealing with 1.3 million Syrian refugees and is not able to accommodate anymore. Deraa is located 13 km (8 mi) north of the Jordanian border and 90 km (56 mi) south of Damascus.
The UN agreed on July 9 that it will begin providing humanitarian aid to families affected by the conflict in southern Syria, including the regions of Deraa, Sweida, and Quneitra. Reuters reports that UN humanitarian coordinator in Syria Ali Al Zaatari stated, “[T]he living conditions of the civilians affected by the conflict in the Syrian south are currently dire.”
The capture of Deraa is likely a sign of the looming end to the Syrian civil war and a victory for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The recapture of Deraa province and the Nasib Border Crossing is of both strategic and symbolic importance the Assad regime. First, the Nasib Border Crossing is a vital trade route for Syrian exports to Jordan and the GCC countries. The Free Syrian Army and al-Nusra Front took control of the crossing in April, 2015 only to lose it three years later. Control of the crossing could allow the regime to jumpstart its economy by resuming trade with its Arab neighbors.
Deraa is symbolically important because the Syrian civil war began there in 2011. Popular protests broke out in response to the arrest of fifteen boys for painting anti-Assad graffiti. The regime’s violent crackdown on the protests set in motion the ongoing bloody civil war, which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and displaced millions more since 2011. The loss of Deraa is also a major psychological blow for the opposition, which similarly views the city as a symbol of the resistance.
Pro-Assad forces backed by Russia have slowly regained control of rebel strongholds throughout the nation over the last two years. In 2016, they reconquer the city of Aleppo and in 2018, took control of East Ghouta. But both victories came at the expense of thousands of human casualties and extensive material losses.
Once Deraa province is secured, regime forces will likely move on to the northwestern Idlib province and the eastern provinces, under the control of the jihadist Hayat Tahrir al-Sham group and the Kurdish-Arab Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) respectively. The Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, Professor Joshua Landis, said, “[O]nce the Daraa operation begins to wind down, Assad will move his elite troops up toward Idlib,” According to The New Arab.
An affront on the north of the country will likely be a more complicated battle, however, since Assad’s forces will have to strike a deal with Turkey over what to do with ten of thousands of rebel fighters that will likely attempt to flee into Turkey. Middle East analyst Kyle Orton agrees that once the Assad forces secure their hold on Deraa the next logical target will be Idlib, but that the Turkish military presence could complicate matters if Turkey intervenes. Turkey and Russia, however, are likely try to come to some sort of an agreement to preserve their current strategic alliance and interests in the region.
The recapture of Deraa by pro-Assad forces represents a major loss that bodes ill for the rebel prospects of winning the war. In the coming months, the Assad regime is likely further to consolidate power over rebel strongholds. Yet, though the war itself may come to a close, the cessation of fighting, unfortunately, will not necessarily equate to peace since the war has not dealt with the underlying tensions and grievances that led to the war in the first place.