Russia seeks to defuse military escalation in southern Syria

A military team negotiated with rebel representatives in Daraa on Sunday

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Russia sought to defuse a military escalation in southern Syria on Sunday, a day after brokering a 48-hour truce between resurgent rebels and Assad government forces.

A Russian military team negotiated with rebel representatives to find a way to avoid a confrontation, sources that oppose the regime said. The rebels are facing government forces and Iran-backed militia in the city of Daraa.

“The Assad regime demanded two rebel leaders would have to leave Daraa for the northern areas,” a senior rebel fighter said, referring to regions outside the regime’s control.

The government is demanding more control over the old city of Daraa than was allowed under a Russian-brokered deal in 2018, the rebel, who was familiar with the talks, told The National.

The confrontations over the past few days have eroded the control of the regime in large parts of Daraa governorate, which was retaken by the government forces three years ago. The area, the birthplace of the 2011 Syrian revolt against five decades of Assad family rule, is near Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights.

The regime wants all light arms to be handed over and roadblocks erected in the old city, known as Daraa Al Balad, where rebels have held sway for most of the past decade. The Syrian military has been hitting Daraa city neighbourhoods with rocket-propelled grenades and tank shells for the past few days.

The two sides had reached a truce on July 30, but that was breached when the Syrian military and militias supported by Iran launched an operation on the city.

“We don’t trust the regime,” the rebel said. “They didn’t bring in all these reinforcements and emptied their checkpoints in rural Daraa for some demands. They want full control over all the regions in Daraa, no less.”

Meanwhile, Jordan has closed its Jaber crossing with Syria after a wave of rebel attacks on the Syrian side of the border.

The crossing closed to goods and passengers “as a result of developments in the security situation on the Syrian side”, Jordanian state news agency Petra said on Saturday, citing an Interior Ministry official.

The official said the crossing to Daraa governorate would be reopened “if the appropriate conditions are in place”.

Hurdle in talks

Although Russia had helped to impose a 48-hour truce, the regime’s demand for rebel commander Mohammed Al Masalmah to be expelled had been a hurdle, opposition sources said. A Daraa dignitary hoped the Russians will help the sides reach a second sustainable settlement.

“Daraa has been internationalised and Russia has made it clear it will not allow the regime to solve this by force,” said the rebel familiar with the negotiations.

“The economy of the regime area has collapsed and the people will keep on rising. The Russians know that only an international solution will lead to stability.”

The rebels launched what they described as a pre-emptive attack last week, capturing roadblocks put in place by the regime and Iran-backed militias. As many as 50 troops were killed in a co-ordinated offensive by rebels in several towns in Daraa governorate. They took up to 150 regime prisoners, opposition sources said.

Since the end of June, Syrian government forces and militias linked to Hezbollah have surrounded the old city of Daraa and other rebel strongholds in the countryside.

The rebels surrendered their heavy weapons to the regime in 2018 after a tacit deal between Russia, the US and Israel to hand back territory to the regime. Russia, which bombed Daraa province and other rebel regions in Syria, supervised the deal.

Unlike other so-called “de-escalation” deals under which rebels and most of the local Sunni population left their homes, most of the people in the former opposition regions in Daraa remained.

Diplomats in the region said Russia was wary of giving the regime and Hezbollah too much leeway in Daraa as it balanced its alliance with President Bashar Al Assad’s government with its ties with Israel and Jordan. The two countries have said they did not want Iranian proxies close to their borders.

Weapons surrendered

Under the 2018 deal, rebels surrendered their heavy weapons and the regime military did not enter the old city of Daraa or other areas the rebels had captured, including the towns of Busra Al Harir, Tafas, Yadoudeh and Nawa.

The deal stipulated the return of the Syrian government departments and the reopening of local police stations. The rebels were also allowed to make so-called settlement papers under which they were not supposed to be persecuted by the regime as long as they did not carry arms.

But dozens of former rebel commanders in Daraa have been assassinated since the 2018 deal. The killings have intensified in the past few weeks, opposition sources said.

Regime and Hezbollah operatives in Daraa have also been murdered, the sources said.

“The assassinations were another important factor behind the rebel offensive,” said one opposition source, who lives in Jordan.

Video footage taken by the rebels in Daraa last week showed several regime prisoners surrounded by rebels shouting slogans denouncing Bashar Al Assad.

In the latest talks, the main condition laid down by the Russians was for five of the main rebel commanders to leave Daraa and go to areas controlled by Turkish-backed opposition forces in northern Syria.

“If the Russians give assurances that the regime will stay away after they leave, then they will,” the opposition source said.

Updated: August 30, 2021, 12:50 PM