Syria regime advances in south as rebels reject Russian peace terms
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A string of rebel-held towns and villages in southwest Syria accepted government rule on Saturday as insurgent lines collapsed under heavy bombardment, but the main rebel forces rejected Russia’s proposed terms for their surrender.
The southwest was an early hotbed of the uprising against President Bashar al-Assad and defeat there would leave rebels with just one remaining stronghold -- the area around Idlib province bordering Turkey in the northwest.
Rebels met Russian negotiators on Saturday to seek peace terms for Deraa province, where most of their southwest territory is located, but said these failed. Moscow is Assad's strongest ally and its air power since 2015 has been crucial to his recapture of vast swathes of Syria.
"The talks collapsed because the Russians insisted on their conditions that want us to surrender," said rebel spokesman Ibrahim Jabawi. "The (rebels') negotiating team refused to surrender and refused to accept the Russian conditions."
Rami Abdurrahman, who heads the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitor, also confirmed that the talks collapsed adding that shortly afterward Syrian and Russian warplanes intensified their airstrikes.
Local groups in many towns seized by the army in recent days had earlier negotiated their own surrender deals independently of the main rebel operations after heavy air raids.
State television broadcast footage from inside 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 government's ally Hezbollah said numerous other towns and villages had agreed to come back under Assad's rule.
Fierce battles were still roiling the area around Deraa city, near the Jordanian border, where the army was trying to capture a disused air base, rebels said, and the northwestern chunk of Deraa province remains in opposition hands.
After the peace talks failed on Saturday, warplanes launched a new wave of strikes on the rebel-held towns of Bosra al-Sham, al-Nuaima and other areas, the Observatory reported, causing deaths, injuries and damage.
One strike killed at least 10 people including five children in the town of al-Sahwa, east of Deraa, it said, raising to 126 the number of civilians killed in the offensive since fighting escalated on June 19.
Jordan sends aid across the border
The army's offensive follows the capitulation of rebel enclaves near Homs and Damascus, including eastern Ghouta, which was recaptured after a scorched-earth assault that killed over a thousand civilians and laid waste to several towns.
Warfare in the southwest could risk a further escalation because of its proximity to Israel. The Israelis have already targeted Iran-backed militias fighting on Assad's side, which they have vowed to keep far from their country's borders.
The government's offensive so far has focused on Deraa province, which borders Jordan, but not Quneitra province abutting the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The entire southwest is part of a "de-escalation zone" agreed last year by Russia, the United States and Jordan. Despite Washington's threats that it would respond to breaches of that arrangement, it has shown no sign of doing so, and the opposition's top negotiator on Thursday accused it of having struck a "malicious deal" to stay silent.
Jordan, which has taken in more than half a million displaced Syrians since the war began, and Israel have said they will not open their borders to refugees amid UN warnings of a humanitarian catastrophe.
However, the Jordanian government said late on Saturday that its army had started delivering humanitarian aid to thousands who had taken shelter across the frontier in rebel-held Syria.
(FRANCE 24 with AP, REUTERS)