Syrian rebels enter new round of negotiations with Moscow
Rebels in Syria’s battered south met with Russian negotiators on Friday after a ferocious 24-hour bombing blitz pushed them to agree to resume talks on a handover of territory.
Moscow, a key ally of the Damascus regime, has been brokering talks for the negotiated surrender of rebels in areas of southern Syria bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The negotiations collapsed on Wednesday, ushering in a day-long volley of air strikes, barrel bombs and missiles that ultimately pressured rebels to return to the table.
They resumed talks at around midday on Friday in a town recently recaptured by government troops, where talks had been previously taking place.
“The meeting has begun and is taking place in Busra al-Sham,” Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for the south’s joint rebel command, told AFP.
The talks were about the handover of remaining rebel territory in the western countryside of Daraa province as well as the southern half of the divided provincial capital and parts of the border with Jordan.
According to rebels, Moscow had previously rejected their demands for a phased surrender of their heavy-duty arms and safe passage for rebels and civilians who did not want to live under regime rule to opposition territory elsewhere.
But Abazeed said the opposition delegation was expected to insist on both those points on Friday.
Regime expands control
As rebels made their announcement, bombardment died down across swathes of the south, according to an AFP correspondent on the outskirts of Daraa city and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group.
By Friday morning, intermittent strikes and barrel bombs were hitting Daraa province’s eastern countryside but overall the raids were less intense than the previous day.
After securing areas around the capital this year, President Bashar Assad last month turned to the south, launching a bombing campaign on rebel areas on June 19.
Moscow, which intervened militarily in Syria in 2015, simultaneously began brokering talks, employing a carrot-and-stick strategy that has allowed the regime to recapture significant territory.
Under such deals, rebels hand over heavy weapons, local police take control of the area and government institutions resume working there.
More than 30 rebel towns have agreed to fall back under regime control through these agreements, doubling the government’s hold on Daraa province to around two-thirds.
On Thursday, regime forces made sweeping advances on the border with Jordan, seizing their first security post there in more than three years, the Britain-based Observatory said.
Aiming at border post
Rebels then handed over around 275 square kilometres (105 square miles) of border territory without a fight, said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
But rebels still hold Daraa’s western countryside, the southern half of the provincial capital and the prized Nassib border crossing.
The Observatory said regime forces were moving quickly towards Nassib on Friday.
“After 20 air strikes on the town of Um al-Mayadhen, regime forces advanced along the adjacent international highway to within three kilometres (two miles) north of the Nassib crossing,” said Abdel Rahman.
He said they were about the same distance to the east of the crossing.
“The Assad government wants both Daraa city and the Nassib border crossing,” said Nicholas Heras, an analyst at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security.
“Daraa is hugely symbolic for Assad because it is the cradle of the Syrian revolution, and Nassib allows the Assad government to get the Jordanians invested in a return of the regime in the southwest through the benefits to Jordan from reopened trade with Syria,” Heras told AFP.
Rebel territory in the south was included in a ceasefire brokered last year by Russia, the United States and Jordan, but that has done little to stem violence.
On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council convened an urgent closed-door meeting to discuss the south, but Russia blocked the council from adopting a statement.
More than 150 civilians have been killed since the start of the offensive, according to the Observatory.
The assault has pushed more than 320,000 people to flee, according to the UN, many to the closed border with Jordan or west near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.