Officers in a loose confederation of rebel groups called the Free Syrian Army, who are operating in the area of Daraa in southwestern Syria, have sent messages to government forces in recent days saying that they will lay down their weapons if they are allowed to stay in their villages and homes.
The rebels are refusing to move to another region in Syria, particular the Idlib area, where rebels from other parts of the country have been placed after they were pushed out of their homes when regime's forces and its allies recaptured their towns. The FSA forces are especially worried about being forced to move to the area they say is filled with armed Islamic militants.
The rebels in the Daraa region are facing a major offensive by the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad, who is trying to recapture the area where the revolt against his government began in 2011.
One of the FSA officers said in response to questions from Haaretz that its forces operating in Daraa are almost all locals and are not linked to any Islamist militant groups like ISIS or the local al-Qaida's Syrian affiliate.
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“We are locals and we have no shared ideology with those groups,” said the officer. “Recently, there has been pressure, mostly on the part of the Russians, that we leave for Idlib. We said we have no reason to be there, we understand that the balance of power is lost so we are willing to lay down our arms and reach an arrangement but not at the price of leaving the area for Idlib or somewhere else.”
Another offer recently made to the rebels would allow only senior officers to leave the region, said the FSA officer. But the officer explained that this is not possible because the Free Syrian Army does not have a centralized leadership like "ISIS or the Nusra Front do." Instead it is composed of local militias that were forced to take up arms to protect themselves from the Assad regime. “We thought the world would help but it turns out we have been left all by ourselves,” the officer added.
A Syrian opposition leader involved in the negotiations told Haaretz that attempts are being made to reach agreements with each village separately, with the hopes of preventing a major assault by the Syrian army. On Thursday, local residents could be seen lauding the regime’s forces and waving the Syrian flag in a number of villages in the area, he added.
Despite these attempts to reach local arrangements, tens of thousands still fear the regime and have fled from the villages and towns in the direction of the border with Jordan, said the opposition leader. He said refugees were not fleeing toward Israel and people were leaving through the corridors opened up by the Syrian army, mostly toward the east and north.
“Some people turned toward Jordan and set up in the border area and a few hundred made their way in the direction of a [refugee] camp that already existed in the Quneitra area, not far from the cease-fire lines with Israel,” the opposition official said. “Some went out to open areas. The main thing is to be far from the bombing.”
On Thursday night, a senior Syrian official told the Lebanese news channel Al Mayadeen that a 12-hour cease-fire had been agreed to and it is possible it may be extended. The cease-fire would allow civilians to leave the Daraa area or advance local arrangements in some of the villages on the eastern outskirts of Daraa where the Syrian army is advancing.
The atmosphere in the Druze villages on the Golan Heights remains calm despite the reports of fighting not so far away and that there is a fear of large numbers of refugees flocking to the Druze towns. A resident of the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Israeli Golan Heights who is in contact with opposition groups inside Syria said the assessment is that battles near the border with Israel will only come later – but this fighting will be much fiercer. The reason is that this area near the Israeli border is controlled mostly by fighters from the Nusra Front, who the Assad regime insists on their leaving for Idlib – or their elimination.
The Druze villages are not yet worried about a flood of refugees, but it is clear that the battles on the Syrian Golan and the Daraa region are in their final stage, after almost eight years of fighting, said the Majdal Shams resident.