JEDDAH: Negotiations between the Russians and Syrian rebels to end days of violence in the country’s south collapsed on Saturday after opposition forces rejected Moscow’s call for surrender, a rebel spokesman and a war monitor said.
Shortly after talks were abandoned, airstrikes intensified on rebel-held parts of Daraa province that border Jordan.
The negotiations on Saturday came hard on the heels of a similar initiative on Friday, when the Russians tabled their demands to halt the Moscow-backed regime’s offensive on rebel-held areas along the borders with Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
“The talks collapsed because the Russians insisted on their conditions and wanted us to surrender,” said rebel spokesman Ibrahim Jabawi. “The (rebel) negotiating team refused to surrender or accept the Russian conditions.”
Meanwhile, a string of Syrian rebel-held towns and villages accepted regime rule as insurgent lines in parts of the southwest collapsed under intense bombardment. More than 160,000 people fled the raids, according to the UN.
The southwest was an early hotbed of dissent against President Bashar Assad and defeat there would leave rebels with just one remaining stronghold — the area around Idlib province bordering Turkey in the northwest.
State television broadcast footage from the towns of Dael and Al-Ghariya Al-Gharbiya, where people were shown chanting pro-Assad slogans. A war monitor and a military media unit run by the terrorist Shiite group Hezbollah said numerous other towns and villages had agreed to accept Assad’s rule.
Opposition spokesman Yahya Al-Aridi said: “It is not Assad’s army that has seized any town, it is the Iranian militias and mercenaries brought from Afghanistan and other countries.”
The “criminal air power of Russia” is bolstering the regime’s advances on the ground, he said.
Al-Aridi said the announcements are not coming from the Syrian state television. “It is the Lebanese Shiite and Iran-supported channel with all sorts of lies and persistent attempts to frustrate people and put them in the state of a psychological disarray,” he said.
Small demonstrations shown on television featured civilians who were frightened to death and forced into hoisting Assad flags and chanting pro-Assad slogans under pressure from mukhabrat (intelligence), he said. “Among them were those who have been all along with the regime due to fear or some sort of affiliation.”
Al-Aridi said: “The Russian tactic is ‘shock and awe.’ They are hitting civilian targets, including hospitals. They are terrorizing Syrians. Any loss of life among civilians is an emotive issue and that affects our fighters. The Russians want to demoralize them.”
He accused the Russians of announcing short cease-fires that they breached themselves. “They lied when they blamed the fighters for that. Their purpose is to create psychological pressure and chaos.
“By spreading stories of surrender and pro-Assad protests, the Russians want to create the impression among civilians that everybody has abandoned them. Their propaganda works to make the fighters feel defeated. They also project the fighters as outlaws and an obstacle to peace in order to destroy their reputation.”
Al-Aridi said the opposition is doing its best to help civilians. “We are in contact with the international community to stop the violence.”
Bahia Al-Mardini, a human rights campaigner and founder of Syrian House, an organization that helps Syrians in the UK, told Arab News: “All we see from the regime and Assad’s media is propaganda. It is not a surprise that when (the Russians and the regime) target civilians and hospitals — that people try to gain time and talk about negotiations in the hope of a positive international move.”
Al-Mardini, who fled persecution by Assad, said: “Syrians will not accept the criminal regime. The more they kill, the more Syrians will refuse Assad and hope for democracy in the future.”
She said: “We need the support of the international community. All the Syrian people ask the same question: Why is the UN not doing more to stop Assad and stop the support for Assad? Syrians are asking why the UN does not do more to stop him killing civilians.”
Meanwhile, fierce battles continued around Daraa city, near the Jordan border, where the army was trying to capture a disused air base, rebels said, while the northwestern chunk of Daraa province remains in opposition hands.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said air raids continued as displaced people headed to the border areas in search of safety, while the UN warned of a humanitarian catastrophe.