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Syria rebels open to UN-backed talks with Russia on Ghouta

The rebel groups left in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta said on Friday they would be willing to negotiate with regime backer Russia on a ceasefire for their one-time stronghold outside Damascus.

In a joint statement, Islamist factions Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman, and Ahrar al-Sham said the United Nations should host such talks in Geneva.

“We are totally ready to hold direct negotiations in Geneva with Russia, sponsored by the United Nations,” the statement said.

Such talks would aim to implement UN Security Council resolution 2401, in which world powers last month demanded a 30-day ceasefire.

Syrian government troops have been pressing a ferocious air and ground assault on Ghouta since February 18 that has seen them retake 70% of the former rebel bastion.

Regime forces have broken up the remaining territory into three pockets, each one held by a separate rebel group.

Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist group made mostly of ex-members of a former Al-Qaeda affiliate, also has a presence in Eastern Ghouta but is not a signatory to the statement.

Jaish al-Islam, Faylaq al-Rahman, and Ahrar al-Sham said their statement on Friday was in response to comments by the UN’s envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura.

De Mistura had hours earlier briefed the UN Security Council on one negotiations track his team was already facilitating between Jaish al-Islam and Russia.

Those talks had already resulted in six days of calm for Ghouta’s largest town of Douma, he said.

“We hope it will continue, notwithstanding engagements between government forces and Jaish al-Islam in other areas, outside of Douma,” he said, however warning that even in Douma, the truce is “fragile.”

“It need not be this way. Negotiations in Douma do show that there is a way to create the conditions that can advance the implementation of your resolution 2401,” he told the council.