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What do the regime’s secret negotiations with the opposition hold for residents of Damascus’ south?

By Fadi Shubat and Justin Clark

Secret negotiations between the Syrian regime and opposition factions in Damascus’ south have locals worried that they could be forced to leave their homes and head to Idlib, local activists tell the Syrian Voice.

The ongoing closed-door negotiations aim to find an agreement by which the Syrian government would retake control of three restive south Damascus neighborhoods, under rebel control since 2012. In exchange, opposition negotiators want to secure protection for local property owners and army defectors, a source close to the negotiations tells the Syrian Voice.

If successful, the talks would make the towns of Babilia, Yalda and Beit Sahem, directly south of the sprawling Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp, the latest in a series of Outer Damascus towns to hand over power to the Syrian government in exchange for an end to sieges and shelling.

So far, opposition negotiators in south Damascus have not shared details of the ongoing deliberations with local residents “for fear that [they] will misunderstand the terms,” an anonymous source close to the rebel delegation tells the Syrian Voice.

But the lack of transparency is angering locals, who fear they may be forced from their homes. In August 2016, an agreement between the regime and opposition negotiators left the city of Daraya completely empty, its residents sent to the opposition stronghold of Idlib in northwestern Syria.

“It’s our right to know what they’re talking about,” says Abu Kassim, a media activist and reporter with a local opposition media outlet.

“The outcome will decide our fates.”

‘The language of force’

Opposition negotiators have not yet reached an agreement with their regime counterparts because they are trying to secure certain protections for the area’s residents, says the Syrian Voice’s source close to the negotiations.

Residents and their properties must be protected first and foremost, he says, and those who defected from the Syrian Arab Army will not be turned over to the government under any circumstances. Surrendering weapons to the regime is out of the question, he adds.

But some south Damascus residents, who have watched similar negotiations play out in other Outer Damascus towns, have little faith in their representatives’ abilities to acquire a fair deal.

“Whatever the opposition’s goals are, they’re in a weak position to achieve them,” says Abu Juma, a nurse at the Maydani hospital in Damascus’ south. “The regime is criminal, and the negotiations are filled with their influence.”

“They only know the language of force,” Abu Juma tells the Syrian Voice.

The regime has already taken steps to tighten its grip on southern Damascus. After the talks began in mid-November, the regime temporarily halted shipments of food and other supplies into the besieged area. When trade resumed, the regime raised the tax levied on supplies entering the region from 10 to 30 percent–a power play to influence the talks, say local activists.

“The negotiations are nothing more than a slight of hand,” says activist Dyaa Muhammad. “The opposition wants to waste time and hold the area for as long as possible, but we might see concessions.”

The Syrian Voice’s source with the opposition’s negotiators tells the Syrian Voice that they’ve studied previous agreements in Outer Damascus, and that “the negotiations are moving along,” though he did not elaborate further.

As residents wait for an official announcement, activist Waleed al-Agha says that whatever the outcome, “people are just looking for a solution to their suffering.”

“I’ll go along with whatever their decision is,” he tells the Syrian Voice. “But even if I’m forced to leave, I won’t abandon the revolution.”

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