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 surrender terms.
Russia has backed a two-week Syrian government offensive 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, July 4 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 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.
Rebels’ ‘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.
But Moscow had roundly rejected the terms, the source said, and responded with a counter-proposal.
It told negotiators population transfers were not on the table in the south, although it had agreed to allow people to leave 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 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.
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.
Israel and Jordan refuse refugee entry
The violence in southern Syria has displaced between 270,000 and 330,000 people, according to the U.N., many south to the border with Jordan or west near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Both countries have kept their borders closed 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.
‘Drop their arms’
World powers have criticised the Syrian government operation for violating a ceasefire announced last year by the United States, Jordan and Russia.
The United Nations Security Council is due hold a closed-door emergency meeting on Thursday on the offensive.
Residents and displaced Daraa natives gathered in front of U.N. 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 U.N. 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.
With reporting from AFP