Syrian army resumes shelling of rebel enclave after collapse of deal


Syrian army units backed by Iranian-backed militias resumed the shelling of a rebel enclave in southern Syria on Sunday after the collapse of Russia-brokered deal to allow the government to reinstate full control over the area.

Russian generals brokered the deal late on Tuesday to avert bloody urban warfare after the heaviest bombardment by elite army units of the rebel core of the city of Deraa in a two-month siege that has forced many of the 50 000 inhabitants to flee.

The deal collapsed on Friday after disagreements over the extent of army control and disarming former rebels. The area is the birthplace of peaceful protests in 2011 against President Bashar al-Assad and his family that were met by force before spreading across the country and evolving into civil war.

Rebels and local elders refused new army demands on Friday for the army to spread checkpoints across residential neighborhoods of Deraa al Balaad and conduct house-to-house searches, saying the deal allowed for a less pervasive presence when it falls under complete state civilian administration.

They also said Russian military police should maintain patrols to bar militias who had encircled the enclave from entering.

“These are impossible new demands presented by the regime and the Russians. We reached a dead-end,” Adnan al Masalameh, the spokesman for the Deraa al Balaad negotiation committee, told Reuters.

Government forces, aided by Russian air power and militias, retook Deraa province in 2018, and Moscow assured Israel and the United States at the time that it would prevent Iranian-backed militias encroaching on the border zone.

That deal forced thousands of Western-backed rebels to hand over heavy weapons, but kept Assad’s forces from entering Deraa al Balaad.

The army said on Sunday they had prepared buses for the evacuation of rebels opposed to the deal to a part of northwest Syria under control of Turkey-backed rebels.

“We insist on full army control and no return back to the state of lawlnessness and chaos that prevailed,” an army spokesman said, accusing rebels of reneging on their pledges.

Several thousand former rebels, civilians and their families insisted they would only leave to Turkey and Jordan, countries seen as safe sanctuaries, local negotiators said.

The enclave and other towns in southern Syria have, since the state regained control of the province, held sporadic protests against Assad’s authoritarian rule that are rare in areas under state control.