Syria rebels agree to surrender frontier with Israel
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels agreed to surrender their last pockets of control in southwest Quneitra province to the government, state media reported Thursday, clearing the way for Damascus to reestablish its authority along the Israeli frontier.
The deal, confirmed in its general outlines by a monitoring group and opposition activists, 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 on Thursday night to pick up fighters, activists, and other residents who refuse to accept the terms of surrender. The buses will 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.
Syria and Israel fought two wars over their shared border, in 1967 and 1973, with Israel occupying the Golan Heights in the Quneitra province in the former confrontation.
But Israel has refrained from taking sides in Syria’s seven-year-long civil war, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he does not object to the government’s return to southwest Syria — as long as Israel’s archenemies Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah stay clear of the frontier.
In northern Syria, a fleet of buses helped evacuate the last remaining residents from Shi’ite, pro-government villages in northern Syria that endured three years of rebel siege. They will be moved to government territory in nearby Aleppo province. About 7,000 people were evacuated from Foua and Kfraya, according to state media.
The transfers — which have become a fixture of the war’s later stages — are a conspicuous marker of the titanic shifts in Syria’s demographics.
Waves of violence against civilians and unforgiving terms of surrender have resulted in the reassortment of the Syrian population. The country’s majority Sunni population has been pushed out of the cities and, disproportionately, into camps and exile, while minorities have moved closer to the centers of government control.
In southern Syria, rebels have been powerless to stop a month of government advances through Daraa and Quneitra provinces, facilitated by a relentless Russian aerial campaign against towns and villages held by the opposition.