Syrian army raises flag above city considered as birthplace of uprising against Assad

Syrian forces hoisted their red, black and white flag as they took control of the southern city of Daraa on Thursday, quashing a rebellion that began there in 2011 before spiraling into one of the bloodiest wars of the century.

Seven years on, Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces are fighting the dregs of that uprising and President Bashar al-Assad’s victory is all but assured. The weeks-long battle for the rebels’ southwestern pocket, once hailed by President Trump as worthy of U.S. protection, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.

On state media Thursday, the streets of Daraa appeared calm as the national flag — still eschewed by the opposition — fluttered in the wind and military officials strolled around greeting elderly residents.

“Congratulations to the people of Daraa, to all the Syrian people,” said one general, describing the government’s return as a victory for “honorable citizens.”

But there were also reports of widespread looting in Daraa province’s recaptured east, with some residents, speaking on the condition of anonymity out of safety concerns, saying that pro-government forces had emptied houses of televisions, electrical wiring and more.

For the uprising’s supporters, Daraa had became known as the cradle of their revolution. When protests roiled the Middle East in early 2011, it was the arrest and torture of a group of young boys — they were said to have spray-painted anti-government slogans on the city walls — that sparked Syria’s own mass revolt.

Monitoring groups say the crackdown and insurgency that followed has caused the deaths of about half a million Syrians and sent 5 million more into exile as refugees. More than a hundred thousand people have also disappeared in the government’s detention network, with many believed to have died through neglect or the hangman’s noose. 

Opposition supporters said the army’s crushing victories in other rebel strongholds had loomed large over this offensive, breaking morale and encouraging towns and villages to surrender one by one as the bombing intensified. In early July, opposition representatives in the remaining rebel-held territory around Daraa banded together and struck a surrender deal with Russia that mandated a temporary government withdrawal from the area and safe passage to the rebels’ final bastion in the north for those who wished to keep fighting.

The fine points of that deal had yet to be ironed out, several rebel officials said Thursday, with about 270 activists and journalists appealing for international help because of fears of retribution from government-allied forces.

Suzan Haidamous contributed to this report.

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