Daraa (Syria) : – Rebels in Syria’s battered south were returning to talks with government ally Russia on Thursday after the most intensive bombing campaign yet in the regime’s two-week offensive.
Moscow has been brokering talks for the negotiated surrender of beleaguered rebels in southern Syria, a highly strategic zone bordering both Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan.
More than 30 towns have already agreed to fall back to regime control, and negotiations this week focused on remaining rebel territory in Daraa’s western countryside and the southern half of the provincial capital.
But those talks fell apart on Wednesday because of Russia’s tough demands, rebels said, ushering in a ferocious blitz of air strikes, barrel bombs, and missiles.
An AFP correspondent on the edge of the rebel-held south of the city of Daraa, the divided provincial capital, said the bombing was the heaviest since the launch of the Russian-backed offensive on June 19.
Twenty-four hours into the onslaught, rebels announced they were willing to return to negotiations.
“The talks will resume,” Hussein Abazeed, spokesman for joint rebel command in the south, told AFP.
He had earlier accused Russia of pursuing a “scorched earth policy” to force rebels to return to the negotiating table.
The joint command also issued a statement saying it would be willing to hold “a new round of negotiations” if a halt to hostilities was immediately put into place.
As rebels made their announcement, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported a halt to both Russian and Syrian government air strikes over the south.
The day-long volley began on Wednesday evening, after rebels announced the failure of talks with Russian negotiators over the south’s fate.
They said Russia had insisted opposition factions hand over their heavy weapons in one go, while rebels wanted to do so in several phases.
Moscow also reportedly refused requests from some rebels for safe passage to opposition-held territory in other parts of Syria, as was done in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo.
The resumption of strikes hit areas near the border with Jordan and further west, according to the Britain-based Observatory.
Six civilians, including a woman and four children, were killed in strikes on the town of Saida.
Hours later, regime forces fully retook the town and also seized control of a security checkpoint on the Jordanian border for the first time in more than three years, the monitoring group said.
Rebels subsequently handed over a large swathe of the border area, amounting to 275 square kilometres, to regime forces without a fight, said Observatory chief Rami Abdel Rahman.
But the main prize, the Nasib border crossing, remains in opposition hands.
Syrian state media said government forces were targeting rebel positions in the southernmost parts of the province, and reported one person killed in opposition fire on government-held districts of Daraa city.
The bombing on rebel areas throughout the day Thursday sparked a new wave of displacement, with people streaming into olive groves and arid fields in search of safety.
Bahaa Mahameed, a doctor working in Daraa’s western countryside, said wounded civilians were streaming into his clinic after several days of calm.
“The warplanes are bombing like crazy. We can’t even find a safe place to put the wounded,” Mahameed told AFP.
– UN to meet –
Rebel territory in southern Syria was already included in a ceasefire agreed last year between Washington, Amman, and Moscow, but that did little to halt the regime’s attack.
The onslaught has sparked calls for restraint, and the United Nations Security Council is set to hold a closed-door emergency meeting on the offensive later Thursday.
Daraa is considered the cradle of the 2011 uprising against President Bashar al-Assad that triggered Syria’s devastating civil war.
Nearly 150 civilians have died since the assault in the south began, according to the Observatory.
The offensive has also displaced 320,000 people, according to the United Nations, many south to the border with Jordan or west to near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Both countries have kept their borders closed, despite mounting calls to let Syrians escape to safety.
The International Rescue Committee said displaced families were struggling to cope with 45-degree heat, dry desert winds and scorpions and snakes.
Children were reported to be hit with cases of diarrhoea and lice after spending more than a week on the border.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi said the hostilities were hindering UN efforts to provide cross-border aid from Jordan.
“Thousands of innocent lives are going to be lost, once again, if urgent action is not taken,” he warned.