- More than 30 towns have already agreed to return to regime control
- Russia insisted the army would return to its pre-2011 positions
BEIRUT: Syrian rebels were facing a deadline Wednesday in negotiations with regime ally Russia to either agree to tough surrender terms in the south or come under a renewed military onslaught.
Moscow has been backing a two-week offensive by Syrian President Bashar 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 were set to meet 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, a spokesman for the opposition’s southern operations said.
Ibrahim Jabbawi told AFP that rebels were “now discussing its content with key figures and fighters in the south on whether to return to the negotiating table.”
“We hope to reach an agreement so that the displaced can return home and the fighting can stop,” Jabbawi said.
A source close to the talks said the meeting would take place at 4:00 p.m. local time (1300 GMT). It follows a tense hours-long meeting on Tuesday.
In that session, rebels proposed a cease-fire, the army’s withdrawal from towns it had already taken, and safe passage to opposition territory elsewhere for fighters or civilians refusing to live under regime control.
But Moscow roundly rejected the terms, the source said, and responded with a counter-proposal.
It told negotiators that 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.
The Russian delegation warned opposition factions that Wednesday “would be their last day to negotiate, and that they’d have to submit their final answer in the afternoon meeting,” the source said.
Moscow has used tough deadlines in the past with rebel negotiators but has extended them at times.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based war monitor, air strikes had stopped for several days to allow for negotiations.
“Today will be the last round — either the rebels agree to these terms, or the military operations resume,” the source said.
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-occupied Golan Heights.
Both countries have kept their borders closed to those fleeing the violence, despite mounting calls by rights groups to let Syrians escape to safety.
On Wednesday, Human Rights Watch demanded 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.
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 their hometown of Al-Mseifra, which had “reconciled” with the government, the Observatory said Wednesday.
That brought the number of civilians killed since the offensive began to more than 140, including children.
World powers have criticized the operation for violating a cease-fire announced last year by Washington, Amman and Moscow, but they have not managed to halt the blitz.
The United Nations Security Council will hold a closed-door emergency meeting on Thursday to discuss the offensive.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi was in Moscow on Wednesday for talks with his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov.
Safadi called for a cease-fire in the south, saying the developing situation was of “great importance” to Jordan.
Lavrov, meanwhile, said Moscow was hoping rebels would lay down their weapons.
“We are helping the Syrian army carry out its work with the armed groups, to convince them to sign a reconciliation agreement, drop their arms, and resume a peaceful life,” he said.