The resumption of talks followed a collapse in truce efforts over Russia’s tough negotiating positions, according to rebel spokesmen.
Moscow has been brokering talks for the negotiated surrender of beleaguered rebels in the southernwern province of Deraa, a strategic area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
But following on from a heavy onslaught in Deraa, the Syrian rebel joint command on Thursday 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.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his allies – including Russia and Iran-backed groups – are fighting to recapture the southwest, one of the last remaining rebel strongholds in Syria .
‘This is the end of the Syrian revolution’
The latest offensive, according to Joshua Landis, head of Center for Middle East Studies at Oklahoma University, meant not just the end of the rebellion in Deraa. “This is the end of the Syrian revolution. Everybody could see it coming – perhaps not as quickly as they thought, but the Syrian military has amassed a major force – it has moved in with air power, everything,” said Landis.
For the Deraa-based rebels who have been virtually abandoned by the international community, the situation was very grim, explained Landis.
“The United States told the rebels it was not going to back them up, that they had to fend for themselves. They’ve been desperately negotiating with the Russians, the Jordanians to see what kind of a deal they could get. Could they keep their heavy weapons? Russia said no. Could they have a UN force to protect them? Russia said no. This is a very bleak picture for the last militias – of which there are about 56 in this region – who are each trying to negotiate separately with the Syrian military and the Russians,” said Landis. “It’s a town-by-town situation and a militia-by-militia situation. There is no unified command on the part of the rebels, which is why this is dragging on for so long.”
Jordan ‘on tenterhooks, the king is terrified’
The latest offensive has killed nearly 150 civilians, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, and has displaced around 320,000 people, according to the UN, towards the border with Jordan or near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
Israel and Jordan have kept their borders closed despite calls from aid groups to both countries to allow civilians seeking safety through.
“The Jordanians are very interested in having this finished as quickly as possible,” said Landis, noting that the recent protests in Jordan over rising prices and falling living standards had jittered the monarchy. “Jordan is on tenterhooks, the king is terrified that if he takes in hundreds of thousands more Syrians, it could just overturn the monarchy.”
Netanyahu in Russia to contain Iran in Syria
Meanwhile the Israeli prime minister’s office on Thursday said Benjamin Netanyahu would travel to Moscow next week to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The statement did not provide details of his agenda, but Israeli media said the conflict in neighbouring Syria was likely to be the focus of their discussions.
“Israel has made the decision that Assad is better for them than rebel chaos,” said Landis, noting that Israel has largely stayed out of the seven-year Syrian civil war, only intervening periodically to target Iranian or Iranian-backed military interests in Syria or a few attempts to “try to degrade Syria’s military technology so it can have a weak Syria at its border”.
The Syria-Israel border has been a contested zone since Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres (460 square miles) of the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six-Day War of 1967 and later annexed it in a move never recognised by the international community.
While the two countries have never signed a peace deal, an armistice agreement, signed after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, has held for over four decades.
Israel, according to Landis, was “trying to get the Russians to confirm that [the Iran-backed] Hezbollah and Iran will stay away from its border. I don’t think the Russians can give that kind of guarantee,” he added. “On the other hand, Assad has every interest in not going to war against Israel. For the last 40 years, Syria has kept the safest border with Israel – which is one of the reasons why Israel has come to the decision that Assad is probably the best and that getting the Russians to guarantee his [Assad’s] independence and trying to distance Assad from Iran is perhaps Israel’s best and only strategy in Syria.”