South Syrian rebels agreed to give up arms in a Russian-brokered cease-fire deal on Friday, rebel sources said, surrendering Dera’a province to the government in another major victory for President Bashar Assad and his Russian allies.
The situation in Syria, and Israel’s insistence that Iran and its Shia militias do not entrench themselves in areas taken over by Assad, is expected to be high on the agenda when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travels to Moscow on Wednesday for a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. This will be their third meeting this year.
Israel has insisted repeatedly that it will not allow Iran or any Shi’ite proxies to establish a permanent presence in Syria, and has publicly admitted to carrying out air strikes against Iranian military targets in the war-torn country which has intensified in the last year.
The Syrian government recovered the Nassib border crossing with Jordan, held by rebels for three years, state media reported, after an assault in insurgent territory along the frontier backed by Russian air strikes.
A state television correspondent said the rebels had agreed to hand over heavy and medium weapons in all the towns and cities included in the surrender deal.
Rebel sources said Russia would guarantee the safe return of civilians who fled the government offensive in the biggest exodus of the war, with 320,000 people uprooted.
Seven years into the war which has killed hundreds of thousands of people, Assad now commands most of Syria with his allies’ help, though most of the north and a chunk of the east remains out of his hands. The presence of Turkish and US forces in those areas will complicate further gains.
As Assad seeks victory, there seems little hope of a negotiated peace, with six million Syrians abroad as refugees and 6.5 million more internally displaced.
Russia has been at the forefront of the Dera’a campaign, both bombing and negotiating with rebels who were told at the start of the offensive to expect no help from the United States.
Assad’s next target in the southwest appears to be rebel- held areas of Quneitra province at the frontier with Israel on the Golan Heights, where fighting between insurgents and the government escalated on Friday.
Israel is concerned that fighting there will spill over to its side of the border, and on Friday the IDF struck a Syrian army post that was the source of a mortar attack that landed within the Israeli-Syrian demilitarized zone, an IDF spokesperson said.
The IDF said that the mortar, which landed adjacent to and east of the security fence, was due to the fighting between the Syrian army and rebel groups in the area. The military emphasized that the IDF does not engage in the civil war but is determined to maintain the 1974 disengagement agreements with Syria which clearly state a demilitarized zone between the two countries.
Errant projectiles have occasionally landed in northern Israel throughout Syria’s seven- year civil war, leading the IDF to retaliate against Syrian army positions.
The IDF is preparing for the possibility that – due to the offensive in the Quneitra area – the Syrian army, along with Iranian, Hezbollah and Shi’ite proxy troops taking part, will not respect the 1974 Separation Agreement, which was part of the overall armistice that ended the Yom Kippur War.
“We have a Separation of Forces Agreement with Syria from 1974,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated earlier this week. “This is the guiding principle. We will adhere to it very strictly and so must others – everyone.”
On Wednesday, IDF Chief of Staff Lt.-Gen. Gadi Eisenkot along with IDF Operations Division’s head Maj.- Gen. Aharon Haliva, Planning Division head Maj.- Gen. Amir Abulafia and the Research Division’s head Brig.-Gen. Dror Shalom received a briefing during a visit to the 366th Division in the Golan Heights.
During the visit to Israel’s northern border, Eisenkot also discussed the readiness of the Northern Command with its commander Maj.- Gen. Yoel Strick and the 366th Division’s commander Brig.-Gen. Amit Fisher.
“The IDF is monitoring the situation in Syria and is prepared for a variety of scenarios to preserve the security on Israel’s border,” read a statement given by the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit.
Last Sunday, armored and artillery forces were deployed to reinforce troops on the Golan Heights near the border with Syria in light of a situational assessment by the Northern Command.
Syrian government advances in the Dera’a region since mid-June had brought large parts of the province back under state control.
Taking back the Nassib crossing with Jordan over the weekend paves the way for Assad to reopen a trade artery vital to his hopes of reviving the Syrian economy and starting to rebuild government-held areas.
Russian guarantees will also be extended to rebel fighters who wish to “settle their status” with the government – a process by which former insurgents accept to live under state rule again, the rebel sources said.
Rebels who did not wish to come back under Assad’s rule would leave for the insurgent stronghold in northwest Syria, they said.
It echoes the terms of previous opposition surrenders, but according to rebel sources, they also secured a concession that some government forces would withdraw from the area.
Russian military police would deploy instead with local forces overseen by Russia also deployed, they said.
The deal is to be rolled out across rebel-held areas of Dera’a in phases, but there is no timeline yet, said Abu Shaima, spokesman for an operations room for rebels under the Free Syrian Army banner.
The initial phases will cover the area along the border with Jordan, rather than the parts of northwestern Dera’a around the city of Nawa, he said.
He said Syrian and Russian jets had pummeled towns across the southwest and villages near the border crossing.
Most of the hospitals had shut down amid the destruction in insurgent territory, which now barely had access to water or electricity, he said.
Several witnesses along the Jordan border fence with Syria said they saw a convoy of over a hundred armored vehicles and tanks with Russian and Syrian state flags, along with hundreds of troops near Nassib.
Assad’s Iran-backed allies are also fighting in the campaign, defying Israeli demands they keep out of the border area. Hezbollah is helping lead the offensive but keeping a low profile, pro-Damascus sources told Reuters.
Both Israel and Jordan, which beefed up their borders, said they would not let refugees in but distributed aid inside Syria.
The UN refugee agency has urged Jordan to open its borders to the fleeing Syrians.
The Norwegian Refugee Council has called this the largest displacement of Syria’s seven-year war.
Herb Keinon contributed to this report.
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