x

Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 20 July 2018

Thousands of Syrians head home after rebels agree to Deraa truce

Ceasefire deal reached on Friday brings calm after weeks of heavy government bombardment

People return to Saida town via the Naseeb border crossing in Deraa in south Syria on July 7, 2018. Syrian and allied Russian troops seized control of the crossing on the Syria-Jordan border a day earlier. Youssef Badawi / EPA
People return to Saida town via the Naseeb border crossing in Deraa in south Syria on July 7, 2018. Syrian and allied Russian troops seized control of the crossing on the Syria-Jordan border a day earlier. Youssef Badawi / EPA

Thousands of displaced Syrians began heading home on Saturday after rebels and the government reached a ceasefire deal in the south following more than two weeks of deadly bombardment.

Some however remained distrustful of the truce, including Umm Abdul Salam, who fled to the border with Jordan with her husband, son and daughter when their village of Hirak in Deraa province was bombed last week.

“For God’s sake, let us in. We don’t want food or water and we just want safety,” she pleaded to Jordanian troops at the Jaber border crossing.

Despite the ceasefire agreement announced on Friday after talks between rebels and regime ally Moscow, she is afraid to return home.

“There is no word of what happened to the people who returned yesterday,” she told The National. “Many families who returned to their areas have been killed by the regime and the militias even after four or five months.”

Umm Abdul Salam is among the roughly 60,000 displaced Syrians in Deraa who fled to the Jordanian border. The UN says more than 320,00 civilians fled their homes after the government launched its offensive against rebels in the province on June 19. More than 150 have been killed in the bombing, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based war monitor.

Jordan has provided assistance to the Syrians along its border but refused to allow them into the country because it cannot cope with more refugees.

Jordanian army and civilian medical workers on the border reported a sharp drop in the number of cases they received after the truce was announced.

Lt Col Mohammad Al Jaiusi, an army medical officer, said 65 cases were seen in the previous 24 hours compared with "hundreds in previous days".

“Most of the cases we treated included diarrhoea, vomiting, dehydration, miscarriages and deliveries. Severe cases received treatment at the health ministry hospitals,” he said. "These included concussions, spinal injuries, as well as injuries caused by shrapnel."

The number of cases soared as the government bombings intensified. “At one point we had 500 cases in a day,” said Mutasem Al Hussein, a medical supervisor at an International Medical Corps mobile clinic set up at the border post.

The Deraa region was calm on Saturday as the two sides finalised the ceasefire deal, according to the Observatory.

_______________

Read more:

Paving the way: Syria highway traces winning regime strategy

Syrian opposition accuses Russia of betrayal as jets pound Deraa

Agency finds 'chlorinated' chemicals in Syria's Douma

_______________

"People have started to return to their homes since yesterday" from the Jordanian border, Observatory chief Rami Abdel 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 south-eastern Deraa countryside," he said.

But others "are scared to return to regime-controlled areas, fearing their children will be arrested", he said.

Osama Al Homsi, 26, who sought shelter from the bombardment in a field to the south of Deraa city, said he was hesitant to return to his hometown of Jeeza.

"Of course I support the agreement to stop the fighting and bloodshed," Mr Al Homsi told Agence France-Presse.

"But what is frightening is that it comes with no UN guarantees … The Russian and the Syrian regime offer no safety," he said.

Only when it is clear the ceasefire has really been implemented and "if we are guaranteed that no one will pursue us, will we want to return", he said.

Under the ceasefire agreement, opposition fighters will hand over territory in Deraa as well as their heavy weapons. Rebels who reject the agreement will be transported with their families to opposition-held areas in the north of the country, state media said.

An ISIS affiliate, which holds a small pocket in the south-west of Deraa, is excluded from the deal.

Government forces will also take over "all observation posts along the Syrian-Jordanian border", state media said on Friday, hours after the regime regained control of the vital Naseeb border crossing to Jaber in Jordan.

Syrian army forces and Russian military police deployed at the crossing on Saturday after more than three years under opposition control.

The ceasefire is expected to be implemented in three stages, rebel spokesman Hussein Abazeed said, first for eastern Deraa, the provincial capital and then the west of the province.

The accord follows a string of similar deals with rebels for other areas of Syria, which have seen President Bashar Al Assad’s regime retake more than 60 per cent of the country, according to the Observatory.

It caps a series of government victories nationwide since Russia intervened in 2015 on Mr Al Assad's side, including for the former rebel bastion of Eastern Ghouta outside Damascus earlier this year.

Deraa is seen as the cradle of the uprising that sparked Syria's seven-year war, and the government retaking full control of it would be a symbolic victory for President Bashar Al Assad.

The province lies in a wider southern region that Mr Al Assad aims to retake, including the neighbouring province of Quneitra to the west, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

More than 350,000 people have been killed and millions displaced since Syria's war started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

Jordan is home to 1.3 million Syrians, with at least 650,000 registered as refugees. Despite the government's insistence that it would admit civilians fleeing the Deraa offensive, there have been public campaigns to let them in and to mobilise aid for them.

In the border town of Ramtha, volunteers unloaded aid donated by Jordanians in an abandoned square. There were piles of mattresses, blankets, diapers, toys and bottled water. Aid deliveries were disrupted for the previous three days as fighting on the Syrian side intensified, drivers and volunteers said.

Izzat Turkmani, a Syrian who has lived in Jordan for years before the war, collected aid raised through a Facebook campaign and brought it to Ramtha in his small truck.

“Even those who are poor donated what they can,” he said.