BEIRUT: Thousands of displaced Syrians were heading home on Saturday after rebels and the government reached a ceasefire deal in the south following more than two weeks of deadly bombardment, a monitor said.
Under the agreement announced on Friday after talks between rebels and regime ally Moscow, opposition fighters will hand over territory and heavy weapons in Dara’a province near the Jordanian border.
The Russia-backed regime offensive has displaced around 320,000 people since June 19, the United Nations says, including tens of thousands who fled south to the sealed border with Jordan.
Calm reigned over the region on Saturday as the two sides finalised the ceasefire deal, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said.
“People have started to return to their homes since yesterday, taking advantage of the calm,” Observatory chief Rami Abdul Rahman said.
“More than 20,000 people have set off for home so far, heading to areas for which an accord has been reached in the southeastern Daraa countryside,” he said.
But others “are scared to return to regime-controlled areas, fearing their children will be arrested,” Abdul Rahman said.
The accord follows a string of similar deals with rebels for other areas of Syria, which have seen the regime retake more than 60 per cent of the country, according to the Observatory.
A government takeover of Dara’a would be a symbolic victory for President Bashar Al Assad as the province was the cradle of the uprising against him seven years ago that led to civil war.
More than 150 civilians have been killed in the regime bombing campaign on Dara’a since June 19, the Observatory says.
Under Friday’s deal, rebels are expected to hand over their heavy weapons, while those who reject the agreement will be bused with their families to the rebel-held northwestern province of Idlib, state media has said.
Government forces will also take over “all observation posts along the Syrian-Jordanian border”, it said on Friday, hours after the regime regained control of the vital Nassib border crossing with Jordan.
On Saturday, “regime forces sent more reinforcements to the border crossing”, Abdul Rahman said.
Meanwhile, Syrian soldiers celebrated the recapture of the main border crossing with Jordan on Saturday, raising portraits of Al Assad and tearing down rebel flags.
Troops captured the Naseeb border crossing a day earlier following a crushing two-week offensive, and after rebels announced they had reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in the southern province of Dara’a and surrender the crossing.
State-run Ikhbariya TV showed troops at the crossing Saturday, some flashing victory signs and pumping fists in the air as they shouted pro- Al Assad slogans. A soldier could be seen hoisting the Syrian flag on top of a watchtower. Another tore down the rebel flag from a building.
One officer told the TV outlet that troops have taken up positions along the border with Jordan and are removing illegal crossing points.
“We have ended their existence,” he said of the rebels. “They have no future anymore, God willing.”
State-run news agency SANA said the army deployed at the crossing after combing and clearing it of the remnants of “terrorist groups.” It said Syrian army units have also established control over the town of Nuaima in the past 24 hours.
The rebels seized control of the crossing in 2015, severing a lifeline for Syrian exports and disrupting a trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and the oil-rich Gulf countries.
The recapture of the crossing in the southern Dara’a province marks the return of Al Assad’s forces to the province where the uprising against him began seven years ago, following successive military victories across most of the country with the help of powerful allies Russia and Iran.
Weakened by a crushing government offensive backed by Russia and abandoned by their US allies, rebels in southern Syria found themselves compelled to accept yet another humiliating surrender deal that would see opposition fighters transported by buses to areas held by rebels in the country’s north.
The rebels in southern Syria once received significant backing and support from the US that has receded and all but dried up over the past few years. Although the US government negotiated a de-escalation agreement for southern Syria last year, it has remained silent as Al Assad’s forces marched onto Dara’a in the past two weeks in a crushing assault that displaced more than 330,000 people.
The government’s offensive to retake Dara’a and the nearby Quneitra region on the frontier near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights began on June 19, and is now expected to turn more forcefully toward retaking Quneitra, potentially setting up a clash between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran unless they agree to stay away from the area as Israel demands.
The assault has forced hundreds of thousands to flee toward the sealed Jordanian border and the frontier near the Golan in one of the largest displacements in the seven-year Syrian conflict. Dozens have been killed.