Syria links talks on south to US withdrawal

  • More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war since it started in 2011
  • The US is present in the north of Syria, where it has been backing a Kurdish-led alliance

BEIRUT: Syria’s foreign minister on Saturday linked any talks on the future of a opposition-held southern region with the departure of US forces from another area bordering Iraq and Jordan.
Regime ally Russia has called for a meeting with the US and Jordan on the future of the southern provinces of Daraa and Quneitra, bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In recent weeks, Damascus has sent military reinforcements to the two provinces, which comprise some of the closest opposition-held areas to the capital.

President Vladimir Putin has spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about proposed talks.

“We have not yet entered into negotiations over the southern front,” Syria’s Foreign Minister Walid Muallem said at a press conference in Damascus.

“The indicator will be the withdrawal of the United States from our land in At-Tanaf” near the Iraqi and Jordanian borders, Muallem said.

The US and its allies have used a base in the area to train a force fighting the Daesh group.
“Don’t believe anything that is said about an agreement on the south until you see that the United States has withdrawn its forces from the At-Tanaf base,” he said.
“It must withdraw its forces from At-Tanaf.”

“We have strived from the start to resolve the issue in the ways that we are used to, which are reconciliations,” he said. “If it is not feasible, we will see what will happen.”

Moscow-brokered reconciliation deals have seen rebels withdraw from several areas of Syria including opposition strongholds close to the capital, often after blistering regime offensives and sieges.

Last month, Washington warned Damascus it would take “firm” action if the regime violated a cease-fire deal for southern Syria that was negotiated with Russia and Jordan last year.

The warning came after regime aircraft dropped leaflets on Daraa, urging the rebels who control most of the province to lay down their weapons or face an offensive.

The US is also present in the north of Syria, where it has been backing a Kurdish-led alliance fighting IS.
Muallem also criticized a US-Turkish roadmap for “security and stability” in the Kurdish-held city of Manbij near the Turkish border.

The agreement came after forces led by Turkey, who considers Syria’s Kurdish militia to be “terrorists,” in March seized the enclave of Afrin west of Manbij.

That had raised fears of a confrontation between Turkish troops and American forces based in Manbij.

“Not just in Manbij but also in Afrin and on every inch of Syrian soil, we consider Turkey to be an aggressor,” the foreign minister said.
“Neither the United States nor Turkey has the right to negotiate over a Syrian city,” he said, describing any such deal as “infringing on Syrian sovereignty.”

12 killed in US air raids
At least 12 civilians — members of the same family — have been killed in US-led coalition raids on Daesh in northeastern Syria, a monitor said Saturday.

“The airstrikes and artillery fire (Friday night) by the international coalition on the village of Hidaj, held by IS (Daesh) in the southern sector of Hasakah province, killed at least 12 people,” the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.
The civilians — including two women and their children — belonged to the same family, it added.

The deaths bring to “20 the number of civilians killed by the coalition in 24 hours east of the Euphrates River,” said the Observatory, which relies on a network of sources across Syria for its reports.

On Thursday, eight other civilians were killed in coalition strikes in Deir Ezzor province, south of Hasakah.

Daesh militants have lost most of the large parts they once controlled in Syria and neighboring Iraq since 2014. Today, the militants hold less than 3 percent of Syria, according to the Observatory.

In Deir Ezzor, the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces — supported by the US-led coalition — are trying to dislodge militants from the east bank of the Euphrates.

The coalition said on Friday its airstrikes in Syria and Iraq had “unintentionally” killed 892 civilians since its bombing campaign began nearly four years ago.

More than 350,000 people have been killed in Syria’s war since it started in 2011 with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests.

It has since spiralled into a complex conflict involving world powers and foreign militants.

Recapturing southwest
Meanwhile, the Syrian regime wants to recapture insurgent territory in the southwest through a settlement in which fighters accept state rule or leave, the foreign minister said on Saturday.

Walid Al-Moualem also said the US must withdraw from the Tanf base in the southeast. Damascus has not engaged in talks about the country’s south, and any agreement over that region must include the pullout of US forces, he said.

The southwest, near the borders with Jordan and Israel, remains one of the big chunks of Syria still outside the control of the state, which has recovered swathes of the country with the help of Russian jets and Iran-backed militias.

Opposition factions hold stretches of Quneitra and Daraa provinces in the southwest, bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, while Syrian regime troops and allied forces control nearby territory.

A “de-escalation” deal, which Russia, the US and Jordan brokered, has contained fighting there since last year. Washington voiced concern about reports of an impending army offensive, and warned it would take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to any violations of the cease-fire.

US forces are based in a southern desert pocket further east at Tanf, a strategic highway border crossing with Iraq.

Moualem said the Syrian military had dropped leaflets calling on insurgents in the southwest to either surrender their weapons and settle with the state, or leave.

“We seek, initially, to solve this issue in the ways we have got used to working with, which are reconciliations. If it does not work, that’s a different conversation,” he told a news conference in Damascus.

Russia has said only Syrian regime troops should be at the southern border with Jordan and Israel, which has waged airstrikes in Syria to curb what it fears is Iran’s expanding influence.

Tehran supports Moscow’s effort to impose Syrian government control over the south, a senior Iranian security official was quoted as saying on Saturday.

Moualem also said Damascus had communicated with the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) but no negotiation process had started over the fate of their territory in the north and east.

He said Raqqa city, which the Kurdish-led SDF militias seized from Daesh with US support, “must be rebuilt and liberated” from any foreign presence.

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