Syrian forces entered the rebel-held district of a volatile southern city on Wednesday as part of a truce brokered by Russia to end weeks of fighting, according to state media, the opposition and a war monitor.
Troops will set up checkpoints and search for gunmen who have refused to implement the agreement that involves handing over their weapons. It was the first time that government troops entered Daraa al-Balad, a stronghold of the Syrian armed opposition since 2013.
The Russian-brokered deal went into effect last week to end the government’s siege and heavy fighting in the city of Daraa and with rebel fighters hiding in the city’s old quarter, known as Daraa al-Balad. But the ceasefire was plagued by fighting and government bombing in rebel-held areas, where civilians also live.
After two days of quiet, Syrian army units entered the neighborhood, hoisting the Syrian flag over the reconciliation center where hundreds of gunmen have already surrendered their weapons, according to the state news agency SANA.
Ahmed al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist based in neighboring Jordan, said that some 400 Syrian troops entered Daraa al-Balad. The armed men are believed to be hiding in a camp for displaced persons on the outskirts of the district.
The move will be followed by the deployment of nine government checkpoints under the Russian-brokered deal reported by Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Observatory said the checkpoints will also include the Russian military police.
Russia negotiated a ceasefire last week to end the violence that erupted this summer between government forces and opposition fighters, and included a siege of the city that had threatened to undo years of relative calm throughout the borders with Israel and Jordan.
The opposition blamed the government for the escalation, saying the troops were pressing an offensive to force the insurgents to surrender.
Under the agreement, insurgents who accept it must surrender their weapons in exchange for an amnesty. More than 900 have surrendered their weapons, according to the Observatory. Those who refused would have to be sent to a rebel-controlled area in northern Syria.
Daraa province, which straddles the borders with Jordan and Israel, became known as the cradle of the uprising against Syrian President Bashar Assad that broke out in 2011 as part of the Arab Spring riots and ultimately led to a civil war. It was recaptured by Syrian government troops in 2018, but the rebels remained in parts. Since then, Assad has regained control of most of Syria with the help of Russia and Iran.
A Russian-brokered agreement in 2018 allowed some of the province’s armed opposition to remain in its former strongholds, in charge of security. Government troops retained control of the province, but security tasks were divided. Tensions flared regularly and government troops tried several times to seize areas under opposition control.