Reuters reports: Pro-government sources say the Russian role has expanded to include facilitating local ceasefires in rebel-held areas around Damascus, with the aim of creating a secure buffer around the capital. Syrian Minister of National Reconciliation Ali Haidar described the process as purely Syrian even if there had at times been Russian help.
“The truth is that since the presence of the Russians on Syrian land, they can play the role of mediator in some areas,” he said at his offices in Damascus. “The Russians make contact (with militants) when they can, of course – in Douma and other areas,” he said, in reference to an area east of Damascus.” Sometimes it is the militants who request mediation by the Russians,” he said. Those wishing to relocate wanted guarantees of safe passage to rebel strongholds, and those wishing to stay wanted to be sure they wouldn’t be killed later on, he said. According to the non-Syrian sources interviewed by Reuters, Russian advisers orchestrated two deals in which hardline Islamist fighters were evacuated from the south toward areas their groups control in the northern and central provinces.
One of the non-Syrian military sources said the Russians worked “in the shadows” to facilitate the ceasefire deals. In some cases the Russians operated as guarantors for the deals.
Dozens of cars left southern towns of Syria in December carrying fighters from Nusra Front with their families to the northern province of Idlib which is under control of an alliance of rebels including Nusra Front. Weeks later a convoy left Hajar al-Aswad and Yarmouk camp areas near Damascus carrying fighters and families from Islamic State to the group’s stronghold of Raqqa.
A second source who was informed of the deals said the fighters were given safe passage. The aim was to empty these areas of hardline Islamists so clearing the way for the government to strike deals with the remaining rebels.
“The Russians want all the battles to be focused in the north, they want the south and Damascus and the coastal line all neutralized. Ultimately they are working toward achieving a wider political solution,” said the source. [Continue reading…]