Syria rebels mull tough Russian terms for southern handover

Moscow rejects conditions which would see rebels keep light weapons until political process begins

A picture taken on July 4, 2018 from the Israeli-annexed Syrian Golan Heights shows displaced Syrians from the province of Daraa staging a protest calling for international protection, in Syrian the village of al-Rafid, near the border fence with Israel.

Beirut: Rebels in Syria’s south on Wednesday discussed a Russian proposal to hand over their remaining territory in exchange for a halt to the regime’s blistering offensive, rebel sources said.

It was their last day to consider the terms, the spokesman for the rebels’ southern operations said, before meeting the Russian delegation on Wednesday afternoon.

Ebrahim 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.

Moscow, a close ally of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, has been backing his army’s two-week onslaught of rebels in the south.

But it is simultaneously brokering talks with opposition fighters that have seen more than 30 towns agree to fall back under regime control so that bombing stops.

Through military operations and those deals, Syrian troops are now in control of more than 60 per cent of the southern province of Daraa.

Current talks are over remaining rebel territory, including Daraa’s western countryside and the southern half of the city.

According to a source close to the talks, rebels presented a proposal to Moscow during a tense, hours-long meeting on Tuesday.

It included a ceasefire, the army’s withdrawal from towns it had already taken, and safe passage to other opposition territory for rebels or civilians who did not want to live under regime control.

Rebels would hand over heavy weapons but would keep the rest until a “real political process” had begun.

But Moscow roundly rejected the terms, the source said.

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.

Rebels and opposition figures were locked in tense talks to decide their response before a meeting with Moscow’s envoys scheduled for 4:00pm local time (1300 GMT).

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.


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