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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 22 July 2018

Jordan mediating Russia and rebel talks for southern Syria handover

The rebels suggested they will give up their weapons gradually

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C) and his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi enter a hall during a meeting in Moscow on July 4, 2018. AFP
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov (C) and his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi enter a hall during a meeting in Moscow on July 4, 2018. AFP

Jordan is mediating talks between Syrian rebel factions and Russia after several rounds of negotiations failed as rebels repeatedly rejected Moscow’s demand to hand over their weapons in southwestern Syria, describing it as a humiliating surrender.

The new round of talks that resumed yesterday and continued on Wednesday grouped a 12-member negotiating committee from rebels factions in Deraa Province. For the first time it included rebels from the southern town of Quneitra, located near the border of the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights, in a fresh attempt to reset the negotiations.

The talks began ahead of a meeting in Moscow between Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov about Syria.

On a WhatsApp group that includes FSA fighters, Syrian media activists and Syrian politicians, activists shared leaks of the rebel’s response to the Russians’ demands in order to reach an immediate ceasefire agreement almost two weeks into a punishing campaign by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The operation has focused on seizing control over the southwest region of the country and has so far displaced 271,000 people.

The rebels suggested in the leaks that they will hand over their weapons gradually, according to the leaks. They demanded that the Syrian regime pulls out of rebel-held areas that it has recently seized and called for the reopening of the Nasib border crossing with Jordan on the condition that it is run by a civilian administration and secured by the Russian military police among others.

More than 30 towns have already agreed to return to regime control in the recent weeks. The Russians are continuing to negotiate with rebel-held towns for their transfer. Moscow and Damascus have halted air strikes for several days while the negotiations continue.

The use of military power, coupled with negotiated surrenders, has seen the Syrian regime’s control of Deraa Province double to almost 60 per cent since it began operations there on June 19.

“The negotiating committee will submit its final response to Moscow today,” rebel spokesman Ibrahim Al Jabawi told The National. “It seems that the negotiations are genuine this time.”

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Rebels resume talks with Russians after Jordanian mediation

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The spokesman did not give reasons for his optimism. Rebels deeply mistrust the Russians and the regime, so those supporting the negotiations are being viewed by other opposition forces as willing to betray their own side.

“The armed opposition realizes that Damascus and Moscow are trying to win without war, using divide-and-conquer tactics,” Nicholas Heras, a Syria expert at the Washington-based Center for a New American Security, told The National.

“Whether or not the rebels can hold out and extend the battle for southwest Syria, therefore raising the price tag for Assad to claim control over this region, will depend largely on how well the rebels can close ranks and unify for the negotiations and battle ahead.”

The United Nations Security Council will hold an emergency meeting Thursday to discuss the Syrian army's Russia-backed offensive in Deraa Province.

On Monday, a group of civilians pulled out from the opposition negotiating team and criticised “some” rebel commanders, accusing them of working for their own interests. They called on the civilian population of southwestern Syria to take up arms and fight.

But Amman, according to rebels, has repeatedly attempted to bring the Russians and the opposition to the negotiating table.

Amman is concerned about the humanitarian crisis unfolding right on its border with around 60,000 people displaced. It also fears that extremists from Jaysh Khaled Bin Waleed, an ISIS-affiliate that operates in the Yarmouk basin close to Jordan’s and Israel’s borders, will infiltrate into the country.

While Jordan insists it will keep its borders closed to Syrians, the army began sending aid convoys to Syrians displaced by the fighting since Saturday. On Wednesday, it announced that it opened three humanitarian corridors to facilitate the delivery of aid to Syrians inside their country.

Mr Safadi said dozens of trucks were waiting for Syrian permission to supply humanitarian aid from Jordan to the displaced Syrians.