BEIRUT: Syrian rebels have agreed to surrender a sensitive area bordering the Israeli-annexed Golan Heights, a monitor and opposition source said on Thursday, the latest in a series of deals expanding regime control over key territory.
The agreement follows another deal that saw thousands of residents evacuated on Thursday morning from two pro-regime towns in northern Syria long besieged by hard-line rebels.
Both deals, negotiated by regime ally Russia, will be seen as victories for President Bashar al-Assad over the seven-year uprising that once threatened his rule.
With a mix of military power and negotiated surrenders, his forces this month captured more than 90 per cent of Daraa, the southern province where protests against him first erupted in 2011.
They then began intensely bombing rebels in Quneitra, a crescent-shaped province wedged between Daraa and the buffer zone with the Israel-occupied Golan to the west.
Under pressure, rebels have agreed to hand over Quneitra and the buffer to government forces, an opposition negotiator and a monitoring group told AFP on Thursday.
“The deal provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons, and the return of government institutions to the area,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group.
Syrian forces would take over opposition territory in the buffer and some rebels would be bussed to opposition territory in northern Syria, he added.
State news agency SANA said it had information on a deal for the army to return to its pre-2011 positions in the area, without providing more details.
A rebel negotiator confirmed a preliminary ceasefire agreement on Quneitra had been reached with Moscow but said it was unclear when it would be implemented.
Under it, he told AFP, Syrian government forces accompanied by Russian police would enter the buffer zone.
There was no comment from Israel on Thursday, but its military said it was keeping a close eye on the border, where tens of thousands of Syrians have sought safety from fighting.
It sees security in the area as a top priority, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussing the south with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow earlier this month.
Russia is a decades-old ally of Syria’s government and has used a carrot-and-stick strategy against rebels to help Assad regain the upper hand.
Moscow began bombing Syrian rebels in 2015 but has also reached out to them, securing negotiated surrenders of vital areas.
It even brokered a deal this week to evacuate thousands of besieged people from a pair of pro-regime towns in northwest Syria.
A deal between Russia and rebel ally Turkey saw thousands of residents bussed out on Thursday to regime-held areas in Aleppo.
Some 6,900 civilians and fighters left, fully emptying the towns.