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Syria rebels say talks with Russia 'fail' over the south

i24NEWS - AFP

clock 6 min read

A Syrian rebel fighter aims his Kalashnikov assault rifle near the frontline outside the southern city of Daraa on July 3, 2018
Mohamad ABAZEED (AFP)A Syrian rebel fighter aims his Kalashnikov assault rifle near the frontline outside the southern city of Daraa on July 3, 2018

Syrian rebels said Wednesday talks with regime ally Russia over the country's south had collapsed after Moscow threatened a renewed military offensive if they did not agree to tough surrender terms.

Russia has been backing a two-week offensive by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces against rebels in the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra.

But it is simultaneously brokering talks with rebel towns for negotiated surrenders in a carrot-and-stick strategy that Russia and the regime have successfully used in the past.

More than 30 towns have already agreed to return to regime control and talks were focused on remaining rebel territory in Daraa's western countryside and the southern half of the city.

Rebels met with a Russian delegation on Wednesday afternoon to deliver their decision on Moscow's proposal for a regime takeover of the rest of the south.

About 90 minutes after the meeting was set to begin, the joint rebel command for the south announced the talks had "failed."

"Negotiations with the Russian enemy in Busra al-Sham have failed, after they insisted on the surrender of heavy weapons," the command said in an online statement.

Their spokesman Ibrahim Jabbawi said the talks had not produced "any results" because Moscow had insisted rebels hand over their heavy-duty arms in one go.

"The session ended. No future meetings have been set," Jabbawi told AFP.

A source close to the talks said rebels would be willing to hand over heavy weapons in multiple phases.

- 'Final answer'? -

The meeting followed an hours-long session on Tuesday, in which rebels proposed the army's withdrawal from recaptured towns and safe passage to opposition territory elsewhere for fighters or civilians unwilling to live under regime control.

Moscow reportedly rejected the terms and gave a counter-proposal, the source said.

It told negotiators population transfers were not on the table in the south, although it had agreed to them in other areas like Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo.

Russia insisted the army would return to its pre-2011 positions, and local police would take over towns in coordination with Russian military police.

- (SANA/AFP)
- (SANA/AFP)A handout picture released by the official Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA) on June 30, 2018, shows Syrian government soldiers in the town of Western Ghariyah, about 15 kilometres (9 miles) east of Daraa city

The source had said before Wednesday's meeting that the rebels were expected to give their "final answer".

"Today will be the last round -- either the rebels agree to these terms, or the military operations resume," the source said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, said air strikes had stopped for several days to allow for negotiations.

There were no immediate reports of a resumption of bombing or other hostilities after the collapse of the talks.

Moscow has used tough deadlines in the past with rebels but has sometimes extended them.

That blend of military pressure and negotiated surrenders has expanded the regime's control of Daraa province to around 60 percent -- double what it held when it began operations on June 19.

The violence has displaced between 270,000 and 330,000 people, according to the UN, many south to the border with Jordan or west near the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights.

Jordan and Israel are watching the development on its borders closely for a number of reasons.

Israel worries that an Assad take-over of the south west would automatically cause Hezbollah and Iran to move their forces close to the border.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to meet Russia’s President Putin on July 11 where the two leaders are expected to discuss the situation.

Israel has struck Iranian targets in Syria numerous times the past couple of years, and continues to vow that it will not allow Iran to consolidate itself near its borders.

4,800 Syrian civilians have been treated by Israel since the war broke out, and on Saturday IDF brought 6 Syrians in Israel who had fled the recent fights in Daraa.

Approximately 33% of those Syrian civilians are men, about 17% are women and roughly 50% are children

The large numbers of refugees worry Jordan, which has already absorbed some 650,000 Syrians since the war broke out.

Jordan insists that it can’t take any more refugees, but Human Rights Watch demanded on Wednesday that both Jordan and Israel allow asylum-seekers in.

"The abject refusal by Jordanian authorities to allow asylum seekers to seek protection not only goes against their international legal obligations, but against basic human decency," said HRW's Lama Fakih.

IDF
IDFIDF soldiers treating Syrian refugees on June 30 2018

- 'Drop their arms' -

Some displaced families whose hometowns had fallen back under regime control have been returning, but even that journey is dangerous.

Eleven members of a single family were killed overnight in a land mine blast as they returned to Al-Mseifra, which had "reconciled" with the government, the Observatory said Wednesday.

More than 140 civilians have died since the assault began.

Russia, which co-signed a ceasefire agreement in south Syria last year with Jordan and the US, has contributed to the recent violating of that agreement by backing Assad’s forces in their fight against the rebels.

The United Nations Security Council will hold a closed-door emergency meeting on Thursday on the offensive.

Residents and displaced Daraa natives gathered in front of UN offices in a rebel-held town in Quneitra province to protest global inaction.

"Civilians who fled and ended up living in tents or without tents out in the open organised this protest in front of the UN offices to ask the United Nations and the world for protection and international guarantees for their lives," said Ali Salhadi, an opposition official.

Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was in Moscow on Wednesday for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.

Safadi called for a ceasefire in the south, saying the developing situation was of "great importance" to Jordan.

Lavrov, meanwhile, said Moscow was helping Syria's army "convince" rebels to lay down their arms.