What is happening in Syria? Assad forces retake rebel stronghold

City of Deraa, where the uprising began more than seven years ago, falls ‘without a fight’

Syrian flag
(Image credit: Mohamad Abazeed/Getty Images)

Syrian government forces have retaken control of the rebel-held districts of Deraa, in what is being described as a “major victory” for President Bashar al-Assad.

The southern city, home to around 140,000 people, is considered to have been the “birthplace” of the 2011 revolt against Assad that sparked the Syrian Civil War.

The Times reports that local civilians had feared a repeat of “the sort of bloodbath suffered by the people of Aleppo” when government forces engaged with the rebels.

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However, regime forces moved into the centre of Deraa yesterday “without a fight”, says the newspaper, after rebel leaders decided not to strike back in order “to spare further civilian casualties” following warnings that they would get no support from the US if they resisted.

Al Jazeera calls the offensive “another milestone in Assad’s efforts” to reassert his authority over the war-torn nation, adding: “With critical help from Russia and Iran, Assad has now recovered most of Syria.”

The Syrian conflict has left more than 400,000 people dead and forced around 11 million people - half of the pre-war population - from their homes.

How did the Syrian war begin?

Tensions began in March 2011 when thousands of Syrians, inspired by the so-called Arab Spring uprisings in neighbouring countries, took to the streets to protest against President Bashar al-Assad. The demonstrators, who demanded democratic reform and the release of political prisoners, were met with deadly force by the authorities. As the violence escalated, protesters began taking up arms.

On 12 June 2012, the United Nations officially declared Syria to be in a state of civil war.

Who is attacking whom in Syria?

Broadly, the war is between those for and those against the Assad regime. However, in reality, the situation is far more complicated.

Hundreds of rebel groups have mushroomed across the country, with frequent shifts in rivalries and allegiances.

The Free Syrian Army (FSA) was set up in 2011 by defecting Syrian army officers who wanted to bring down the government, but Islamist militia groups soon came to dominate the armed opposition. By September 2014, Islamic State was said to control around 81,000 sq miles - an area similar in size to the UK - across Syria and neighbouring Iraq.

The group has since been largely dismantled, with help from Russia, which began carrying out air strikes to support the Assad regime in 2015.

But as counter-insurgency expert David Kilcullen says: “Now we’re dealing with the war after the war against Isis.” The unrest in Syria has developed into a “fully-internationalised, incredibly complex conflict”, he told ABC News.

While Russia and Iran have backed the Syrian state, other foreign countries including Turkey, the US, the Gulf Arab states and Jordan have backed different opposition factions.

What next for Syria?

Barring a major shift in fortunes, a government forces victory now looks all but certain.

The Sydney Morning Herald says that “the fall of the birthplace of the uprising - and the last remaining urban stronghold of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) - deals a knockout blow to the opposition”.

“The defeat of Daraa sounds the death knell of the revolution. The only remaining opposition stronghold is Idlib in the north, controlled by a patchwork of competing Islamist groups,” the newspaper adds.

With Assad continuing to pursue a military victory, there appears to be “little hope of a negotiated peace, which Western governments say is needed to bring stability and encourage refugees to return”, Al Jazeera reports.

Government forces are now expected to turn to Idlib, where Islamist militias and al-Qa’eda-linked militants control territory inhabited by more than two million internal refugees, says The Guardian.

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