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Syrian Government Takes Opposition Town After Weeks Of Siege

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Syrian government has had the upper hand in the decade-old civil war there. Battle lines have not shifted much lately, but the war still goes on. And as a reminder of that, one of the places where protests began in 2011 was retaken by the government this month after weeks of siege, threats of air strikes and the collapse of a peace deal negotiated by Russia. The Syrian national flag now flies over the town. The government says it won't stop fighting elsewhere until it has total control. NPR's Ruth Sherlock covers the Syrian civil war and joins us. Ruth, thanks for being with us.

RUTH SHERLOCK, BYLINE: Thank you.

SIMON: Please tell us what's been happening in this area.

SHERLOCK: So this town is called Daraa al-Balad. Back in 2018, Russia negotiated a so-called reconciliation deal with rebels in the area. So they were asked to give up heavy weapons. And in exchange, the town was offered a degree of autonomy. So there would be a Russian police force there and a military force formed by Russia but from local ex-rebels, and the regime would largely keep out.

The problem with this, though, is that it never really brought peace. There's been tit-for-tat fighting and hundreds of assassinations there in recent years. And then in May, residents in this area largely boycotted the presidential elections and held protests against President Bashar al-Assad, which angered the regime. And the eventual response, Scott, was fierce.

The government brought the Fourth Division elite forces - that's run by the president's brother, Maher al-Assad - to the area. They imposed a siege on the town. They blocked access for food and medical supplies. And the message to the population was essentially surrender or starve. The population chose to surrender. But there were several injured before that happened. There's now a new Russian-brokered deal, but it's very much on the government's terms.

SIMON: The Syrian government has prevailed in a lot of the country with exactly these tactics. What do you hear from people in the area?

SHERLOCK: Look, they say what is clear is that after even a decade of war, the regime has not changed its tactics. Repression remains its main modus operandi. You know, a major problem with these so-called reconciliation or peace deals that Russia negotiated here in 2018 and has done elsewhere is that the Syrian government sometimes seems to show little interest in actually sticking to them. So for example, there have been rebels who've surrendered their weapons in exchange for a guarantee of safety and have ended up disappearing into government jails. We reached a resident of Daraa al-Balad, Ahmed Hameed al-Hamdid (ph), who's in his 60s.

AHMED HAMEED AL-HAMDID: (Non-English language spoken).

SHERLOCK: Here he's telling us, "I've been thinking I should leave Syria completely. We are so tired." He says he and his family have been waiting so long for a better political solution. And instead, the regime is not changing. And now there's a disastrous economic situation, which means that they also often don't have electricity in their home and sometimes can barely afford food. Another resident we spoke with in Daraa told me that the area is losing its community with anyone who can leaving the country because they have lost hope for a better future.

SIMON: Ruth, can you tell us where the battle lines seem to be now and what makes this town strategically critical?

SHERLOCK: Well, look. The government has retaken most of the country, although there's still a big pocket of opposition in the north and the area controlled by the Kurds. But Daraa al-Balad is in the south. Russia and Iran both back the regime in the wider war. But in this area in particular, Russia has been the strongest influence. If this latest fighting in Daraa, though, is a sign that the regime is listening less to its ally Russia and preferring instead to use force instead of reconciliation, that's a real concern to countries like Israel and Jordan. That's because these countries share a border with this part of Syria. And they worry that if Russia's deals break down in this area, the regime's other ally, Iran, will instead become a bigger influence here. And that could pose a security threat to these places.

SIMON: NPR's Ruth Sherlock, thanks so much for being with us.

SHERLOCK: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.