By Ellen Francis
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 defence and foreign ministries did not respond to requests for comment on the talks. Moscow says the reconciliation centre 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 militants 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 Qaeda’s former Syria branch.
Both factions accuse Moscow of not honouring the deals, or turning a blind eye to Syrian army violations.
Damascus and Moscow say they only target militants.
“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?”
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 favour of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, Russia has seized the reins of international diplomacy in the past year. It has sought to build a political process outside of failed U.N. 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 between Syria’s many combatants.
With the map of Syria’s conflict redrawn, Russia wants to convert military gains into a settlement that stabilises 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.
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