Rebels controlling several towns in southern Syria said negotiations with Russia for a possible deal involving a regime takeover in exchange for an end to fierce bombing have failed.
Israel’s Hadashot TV news on Saturday afternoon quoted rebel leaders saying they were presented with “an insulting offer” to essentially capitulate to forces of Bashar Assad’s regime, and they rejected it.
The TV report also said 15 people had been killed in attacks in the area by Russian warplanes.
Since June 19, Russian-backed government forces have been battering opposition-held parts of Daraa province with air strikes and barrel bombs, simultaneously calling on rebels to surrender.
Syrian state news agency SANA reported Friday that rebels in three towns in Daraa’s eastern countryside had agreed to a regime takeover in the last two days. It carried preliminary reports that rebels in four more towns had “agreed to hand over their weapons… and reconcile.”
UN High Commissioner of Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein warned Friday in a statement of the “grave risk that the intensified fighting will see many civilians trapped.”
He said many risked being caught between pro-government forces on one side and armed opposition groups and the Islamic State jihadists on the other.
The rights chief condemned how “civilians in Syria continue to be used as pawns by the various parties.”
Zeid said his office had received reports that “in the last few days, civilians at some government checkpoints in the southeastern-and-western parts of Daraa have only been allowed through to government-held areas in Daraa City and As Suwayda governorate for a fee.”
“To add to the bleak situation facing civilians, there are also reports that ISIL fighters in control of the Yarmuk Basin area in the western part of Daraa governorate are not allowing civilians to leave the areas under their control,” he said.
Zeid stressed that international law requires all sides to “do their utmost to protect civilians” and urged the parties to the conflict “to provide safe passage to those wishing to flee.”
“Those wishing to stay must be protected at all times,” he added.
Zeid said his office had documented at least 46 civilian deaths in the region since the escalation began on June 19. But the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights puts the toll at more than double that, at 96.
The UN has warned that more than 750,000 lives are at risk in the south, which is meant to be protected by a ceasefire put in place last year by Russia, Jordan, and the United States.
The onslaught has sparked fears of a rerun of the offensives last year against the rebel enclaves of Aleppo and eastern Ghouta, including deadly bombardments followed by a retaking of territory and an accord to evacuate rebels from the areas.
“I have spoken of the cruel irony of Eastern Ghouta being a deescalation zone, and how the conduct of the war has been utterly shameful from the outset and a stain on us all,” Zeid said Friday.
“Now another supposed ‘deescalation’ zone risks becoming the scene of large-scale civilian casualties,” he said.
“This madness must end.”