Syr­ian rebels in back-chan­nel talks with Rus­sian of­fi­cials

Jerusalem Post - - REGIONAL NEWS - • By ELLEN FRAN­CIS (Bas­sam Kha­bieh/Reuters)

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Syr­ian rebels un­der siege near Da­m­as­cus have re­sorted to talks with the gov­ern­ment’s ally Rus­sia, some­times meet­ing in no-man’s-land, as they seek to hang on to their en­clave.

The meet­ings on east­ern Ghouta – the only ma­jor rebel bas­tion around the cap­i­tal – un­der­line Moscow’s deep­en­ing role in try­ing to shape Syria’s fu­ture af­ter the con­flict, which broke out in 2011.

The rebels have won al­most noth­ing from the ne­go­ti­a­tions so far, but they say they have lit­tle choice.

They be­lieve the Rus­sians, whose air force all but won the war for the gov­ern­ment, will have the fi­nal say on Syria’s fate.

The two main rebel forces in the sub­urbs signed cease­fires with Rus­sia in the sum­mer, but fight­ing has car­ried on. Both said they have been talk­ing to Rus­sian of­fi­cials reg­u­larly for sev­eral months.

“It’s bet­ter to ne­go­ti­ate with the one call­ing the shots, which is Rus­sia, than with the regime,” said Wael Ol­wan, spokesman for the Failaq al-Rah­man in­sur­gents. “So the fac­tions are forced to sit down with them. This is the reality.”

The Rus­sian De­fense and For­eign min­istries did not re­spond to re­quests for com­ment on the talks. Moscow says the rec­on­cil­i­a­tion cen­ter at its air base in Syria rou­tinely holds peace talks with armed fac­tions across the coun­try.

The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment’s min­is­ter for na­tional rec­on­cil­i­a­tion has said the state in­tends to get all gun­men out of east­ern Ghouta and re­store its full con­trol.

But the in­sur­gents want their en­e­mies to ob­serve the truce, which they say in­cludes lift­ing the siege, open­ing cross­ings, and let­ting dy­ing pa­tients out. It would also in­volve evac­u­at­ing the few hun­dred fight­ers of al-Qaida’s for­mer Syria branch.

Both fac­tions ac­cuse Moscow of not hon­or­ing the deals, or turn­ing a blind eye to Syr­ian Army vi­o­la­tions.

Da­m­as­cus and Moscow say they only tar­get com­bat­ants.

“We send them doc­u­men­ta­tion of how the air­craft drops mis­siles on res­i­den­tial ar­eas,” said Hamza Birq­dar, a mil­i­tary spokesman for the Jaish al-Is­lam rebels.

“Ei­ther there is si­lence... or base­less ex­cuses,” he said. “They say gov­ern­ment au­thor­i­ties de­nied bomb­ing. Then these planes fly­ing over the Ghouta, who do they be­long to?”

Truce process

The con­flict has killed hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple and cre­ated the world’s worst refugee cri­sis. Mon­i­tors and op­po­si­tion ac­tivists blame Rus­sian bomb­ing for thou­sands of civil­ian deaths and much of the destruction – al­le­ga­tions Moscow denies.

Af­ter turn­ing the war in fa­vor of Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad, Rus­sia has seized the reins of in­ter­na­tional diplo­macy in the past year. It has sought to build a po­lit­i­cal process out­side of failed UN peace talks in Geneva.

Other coun­tries in­clud­ing the United States, mean­while, have wound down sup­port for the ar­ray of mostly Sunni rebels.

Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who first sent war­planes to help As­sad in 2015, is push­ing for a congress of na­tional di­a­logue among Syria’s many com­bat­ants.

With the map of Syria’s con­flict re­drawn, Rus­sia wants to con­vert mil­i­tary gains into a set­tle­ment that sta­bi­lizes the shat­tered na­tion and se­cures its in­ter­ests in the re­gion.

To this end, Moscow has been ne­go­ti­at­ing be­hind the scenes with armed fac­tions across Syria.

“We com­mu­ni­cate ex­clu­sively with them,” said Birq­dar. “Be­cause in reality, when it comes to As­sad and his gov­ern­ment, they have be­come toys in the hands of the Rus­sians. They make no de­ci­sions... ex­cept un­der Rus­sian or­ders.”

With of­fi­cial and se­cret talks, Moscow has built ties to lo­cal groups partly to gain in­flu­ence on the ground, said Yury Barmin, an ex­pert with the Rus­sian In­ter­na­tional Af­fairs Coun­cil, a think tank close to the For­eign Min­istry.

“There’s one goal. Their in­clu­sion in the truce process,” he said. “All this is done with the aim of pop­u­lat­ing these Rus­sian pro­cesses, ones led by Rus­sia, with such op­po­si­tion groups.”

No-man’s-land

Since 2013, Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces and their al­lies have block­aded east­ern Ghouta, a densely pop­u­lated pocket of satel­lite towns and farms.

The mil­i­tary has sup­pressed op­po­si­tion en­claves across western Syria, with the help of Rus­sian air power and Iran­backed Shi’ite mili­tias. Nearly seven years into the war, As­sad has re­peat­edly vowed to take back ev­ery inch of Syria.

The Ghouta re­mains the only big rebel en­clave near the heav­ily for­ti­fied cap­i­tal.

“Our com­mu­ni­ca­tions with the Rus­sian side are through [its] of­fi­cial in Da­m­as­cus in charge of this file, by phone and in meet­ings,” said Yasser Del­wan, a lo­cal Jaish al-Is­lam po­lit­i­cal of­fi­cial.

They meet Rus­sian forces in no-man’s-land, the aban­doned farm­land be­tween rebel and gov­ern­ment ter­ri­tory, at the edge of the nearby Wafideen camp.

“We talk about the deal we signed... im­ple­ment­ing it from pa­per into some­thing prac­ti­cal,” he said.

Both rebel forces said Rus­sia in­sti­gated the talks. They said Rus­sian of­fi­cials some­times blame Iran-backed forces for break­ing the truce or use ji­hadists as a pre­text for at­tacks against the Ghouta.

Failaq al-Rah­man only ne­go­ti­ates with Rus­sian of­fi­cials out­side Syria, said Ol­wan, their spokesman.

“In reality, Rus­sia has never been hon­est in its sup­port of the po­lit­i­cal track,” he said. “But with the fail­ure of the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity ... the fac­tions were forced to ne­go­ti­ate with the en­emy.”

De-es­ca­la­tion deals

East­ern Ghouta falls un­der cease-fire plans for rebel ter­ri­tory that Rus­sia has bro­kered across Syria in the past year, with help from Turkey and Iran.

When the in­sur­gents signed the “de-es­ca­la­tion” deal with Rus­sia last sum­mer, res­i­dents and aid work­ers hoped food would flow into the sub­urbs, home to around 400,000 peo­ple. But they say it has brought no re­lief.

De­spite lulls in air strikes, the siege got harsher. In some front-line dis­tricts, fierce bat­tles rage on. Food, fuel, and medicine have dwin­dled, es­pe­cially af­ter the shut­down of smug­gling tun­nels.

A Syr­ian of­fi­cial in Da­m­as­cus said the army has only re­tal­i­ated to ter­ror­ists in the sub­urbs shelling dis­tricts of the cap­i­tal. “As for the Rus­sian al­lies, ev­ery action takes place on Syr­ian land in full and to­tal co­or­di­na­tion with the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment,” the of­fi­cial said. “They have a big role.”

The Ghouta’s rebel fac­tions, which have long been at odds, say they have no direct con­tacts with As­sad’s gov­ern­ment.

“In its com­mu­ni­ca­tions, Rus­sia has al­ways tried to present it­self as the so­lu­tion,” Ol­wan said. “We don’t see them as me­di­a­tors. We see them as the fi­nal com­man­der in the regime’s ranks.”

The Da­m­as­cus gov­ern­ment mostly does not play a role in the talks, said Barmin, the Rus­sia an­a­lyst. “Da­m­as­cus is pre­sented with a fait ac­com­pli and must ei­ther ac­cept it or not.”

SYR­IAN REBEL FIGHT­ERS of Jaysh al-Is­lam gather in the east­ern Ghouta area of Da­m­as­cus in a file photo from last year.

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