Syrian rebels agreed to surrender their last pockets of control in southwest Quneitra province to the government, state media reported Thursday, making way for Damascus to re-establish its authority along the Israeli frontier, VOA reports. The deal, confirmed in its general outlines by a monitoring group and opposition activists in Quneitra, will put the Syrian government face-to-face with Israel along most of its frontier for the first time since 2011, when an uprising against President Bashar Assad’s rule swept through Syria.
A fleet of buses reached Quneitra Thursday night to pick up fighters, activists and other residents who refuse to accept the terms of surrender, and evacuate them to rebel-held areas in northern Syria, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said. An affiliate of the Islamic State group continues to hold a sliver of the frontier. The group is not party to the agreement between the government and rebels.
According to RFERL, the resumption of Syrian control over areas bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, one of the last remaining rebel strongholds in the country, appears to be part of a larger Russian plan to reinstitute Syrian control in the border region while clearing the area of pro-Iranian militias, as sought repeatedly by Israel and the United States in talks with Moscow this year.
Backed by Russian air power, Assad’s forces have swept through southwestern Syria in the last month in one of the swiftest campaigns of the seven-year civil war, forcing surrender on massively outgunned rebels. The campaign has already restored Assad’s control over a critical portion of the border region with Jordan. The latest negotiated surrender marks another milestone in Assad’s Russian-backed effort to reassert rule over a country fractured by a war that has killed more than 400,000 people.
A copy of the surrender agreement sent to Reuters by a rebel source said insurgents had negotiated the deal with Russia. Echoing surrender terms imposed on rebels elsewhere in the country, opposition fighters agreed to give up their heavy and medium-sized weapons. Those wishing to stay in the area agreed to “settle” their status with the state, meaning accept the return of Assad’s rule. Rebels who rejected the surrender terms were given safe passage and transport to the opposition-held province of Idlib in the northwest.
Meanwhile, Time points that U.S. officials say the United States is finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian civil defense workers and their families from southwest Syria as Russian-backed government forces close in on the area. Two officials familiar with the plans said Thursday that the U.S., Britain and Canada are spearheading the evacuation that would transport members of the White Helmets group to transit camps in neighboring countries. From there, they will be sent to third countries, including Britain, Germany, the Netherlands and possibly Canada, according to the officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the matter.
The officials, and a member of the White Helmets who is due to be evacuated from Quneitra province, said the operation appears to be imminent as the Syrian army continues to gain ground in its latest offensive. The White Helmets, who have enjoyed backing from the U.S. and other Western nations for years, are likely to be targeted by Syrian forces as they retake control of the southwest, according to the officials.
The White Helmets are not without controversy. They only operate in opposition-held areas, where government services are almost non-existent and aerial bombings are recurrent. Syrian government supporters accuse them of being politically affiliated with the rebel groups. Russia and the Syrian government have repeatedly accused them of staging chemical attacks in opposition areas, a charge that has never been proven. They have continued to receive U.S. support even as President Donald Trump presses ahead with his plans to withdraw all American forces from Syria as soon as Islamic State forces are routed. In June, the State Department freed up a small portion — $6.6 million out of some $200 million — in frozen funding for Syria stabilization programs to keep the White Helmets operating through the end of this year.
Since the government offensive began in June, the area along the frontier with the Golan Heights has been the safest in the southwestern region, attracting hundreds of displaced people because is along the disengagement line with Israel demarcated in 1974 after a war. The Syrian government is unlikely to fire there or carry out airstrikes.