AMMAN/BEIRUT (REUTERS) - Syrian rebels are negotiating with Russia to return state sovereignty in areas they control in the southwestern Deraa province, where the army has made rapid advances this month, insurgents said on Saturday (June 30).
Air raids continued overnight and on Saturday morning on rebel areas, a war monitor said, backing an offensive that the United Nations says has driven 160,000 people from their homes, threatening a humanitarian catastrophe.
State television reported another town had agreed to come back under state rule, raising the government's flag from its buildings on Saturday.
Russia, the Syrian government's strongest supporter, has supported army advances with air strikes since entering the war in 2015, and has played a role in mediating surrender deals.
Southwestern Syria is one of two remaining rebel strongholds, along with a region of the north-west, that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has sworn to recapture, along with territory held by US-backed Kurdish forces in the north-east.
The army's offensive there 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 south-west could risk further escalation because of its proximity to Israel.
The Israelis have already targeted Iran-backed militia fighting on Mr 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, which borders the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The deal being discussed does not include Quneitra, the rebels said.
The entire south-west 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.
Insurgent negotiators and a spokesman said a six-member civilian and military committee of the southern rebels held a preliminary meeting along the administrative borders of neighbouring Sweida province.
"The committee held its first meeting with Russian officers, who presented their demands," said Ibrahim Jabawi, a spokesman of the central operations room set up by the main Free Syrian Army groups in southern Syria.
A second round of talks was expected on Saturday.
Jordan, which borders Deraa province, has been facilitating talks between rebel factions and Moscow over a deal that would end the violence in exchange for the return of state rule there.
Russian negotiators have demanded rebels accept terms like those agreed for eastern Ghouta, where insurgents either left for opposition territory in the north-west along with their families or accepted the return of state rule, Jabawi said.
The south-west rebels did not accept this, and were instead proposing the return of civilian state institutions in the opposition areas and the entry of Russian military police rather than Syrian government forces.
However, the army has already captured large parts of the eastern zone of rebel-held territory in Deraa province in less than two weeks of fighting, and several more towns still held by the insurgents have reportedly agreed to settle with Mr Assad.
On Saturday, state television said the town of al-Ghariya al-Sharqiya had accepted a "reconciliation" agreement with the government, and the national flag had been raised there.
It said on Friday that four other towns nearby had agreed to surrender their arms and accept state rule.
The army had gained control over the towns of al-Harak, Ibta and Rakham, it said, and a rebel said opposition lines in one area had collapsed.
The Observatory reported that warplanes carried out 32 air strikes overnight as the offensive continued, hitting nine towns in Deraa province.
So far, about 100 civilians have been killed in air raids and shelling since June 19, it said.
Clashes escalated around Deraa city, which lies close to the border with Jordan, and where army advances could cut the insurgent territory in the south-west in two, it said.