Assad visits army

BEIRUT/AMMAN – Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on Sunday visited Syrian soldiers who appear close to defeating the last major opposition foothold near Damascus and met some of the many thousands of people uprooted during the government offensive.

Meanwhile figures close to rebels said talks were in progress with the aim of them leaving to other opposition areas or giving up arms, though rebels have publicly ruled out the kind of negotiated withdrawal that helped Mr Assad recover Aleppo, Homs and other areas.

Troops have splintered Ghouta into three besieged zones in one of the bloodiest offensives of the seven-year war, with rebels facing their worst defeat since the battle of Aleppo in 2016.

The Syrian government has sought to drive a wedge between rival rebels who control different parts of eastern Ghouta.

By working on separate secret talks with rebels in each region by applying varying degrees of military pressure, the government’s “divide and rule” tactics were beginning to bear fruit, one opposition source said.

“The army advances in recent days have piled pressure on the factions and every party wants to get the best deal possible,” the source said without elaborating.

In a sign of confidence, Mr Assad on Sunday visited frontline troops and people recently displaced from eastern Ghouta, Syrian state media said and published footage and pictures of the meetings.

“Every tank driver who advances one metre forward has changed the political map of the world,” state news agency SANA reported Mr Assad as saying.

After a morning of calm, shelling and ground battles resumed across eastern Ghouta on Sunday afternoon, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor said.

On Sunday, Failaq al-Rahman, the main rebel group in the southern eastern Ghouta pocket said it was negotiating with a United Nations delegation about a ceasefire, aid and the evacuation of urgent medical cases.

“We are engaged in arranging serious negotiations to guarantee the safety and protection of civilians,” said Wael Alwan, Failaq al-Rahman’s Istanbul-based spokesman.

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