BEIRUT — Syrian government 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 and spiraled into Syria’s devastating civil war.
Seven years on, Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces are fighting to put down the remnants of the Daraa uprising, and President Bashar al-Assad’s victory is all but assured.
The weeks-long battle for the rebels’ southwestern pocket, once deemed by the Trump administration as worthy of U.S. protection, killed hundreds of civilians and displaced hundreds of thousands more.
On Syrian state media Thursday, the streets of Daraa appeared calm as the national flag — 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, who described 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 Arab Spring 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. More than 100,00 people have also disappeared in the government’s detention network, with many believed to be dead.
The battle for Syria’s southwestern corner alarmed neighboring Jordan and Israel, and both allowed some Syrians to cross as refugees. The United Nations said Wednesday that about 170,000 people were still camped close to the Israeli-
occupied Golan Heights, with limited access to humanitarian assistance.
For almost a year, fighting in the southwest had largely stopped after the United States, Russia and Jordan agreed to a local cease-fire.
The Trump administration considered the deal an example of how the United States and Russia could cooperate even when they were on opposing sides of a conflict.
When a Syrian government offensive threatened the area in recent weeks, U.S. representatives texted rebel leaders they had long supported to say they should not count on Washington’s support, according to the fighters.
“The Trump administration, when it came to southwest Syria, was all about heavy marketing, and not about the heavy lifting of protecting one of the few safe spaces,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
Opposition supporters said Thursday that the army’s crushing victories in other rebel strongholds had loomed large over this offensive, breaking morale and encouraging towns and villages to surrender 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 northern Syria for those who wished to keep fighting.
The fine points of that deal have 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.