Syrian Rebels Start Evacuating Border Near Golan Heights, Surrender to Assad

A convoy of 20 buses carrying civilians and rebels left one area of Quneitra, heading for the north as part of a surrender deal that restores the regime's control of the frontier

Refugees coming to border between Syria and Israel by a camp for displaced Syrians near the Syrian village of Burayqah in the southern province of Quneitra, July 17, 2018.
Jalaa Marey/AFP Photo

Syrian rebels began evacuating the border near the Israeli side of the Golan Heights on Friday, a witness and a war monitor group said, leaving for the rebel-held north in a surrender deal that restores President Bashar Assad's control of the frontier.

On Friday, a convoy of about 20 buses carrying civilians and rebels left one area of Quneitra, said the witness. 

"They have started to move," said Rami Abdulrahman, director of the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. 

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A Reuters witness observing the village of Qahtaniya from the Israeli side of the frontier saw men climbing into trucks piled high with belongings and leaving. It was not clear where they were headed. Buses later arrived in Qahtaniya.

With a Russian-backed government offensive closing in, an arrangement was reached between the two parties on Thursday. Assad's regime will once again control the Quneitra province and the rebels will withdraw from the area. According to a report by the Syrian state news agency SANA, Russia brokered a deal in which Assad's army would reclaim the regions it ruled before the war began in 2011.

On Monday, the Syrian state channel reported that the Syrian army had captured Tel Hara, a strategic veiwing point on the Israeli Golan Heights. The area was occupied on the second day of a large-scale operation in southern Syria against the rebels under the Assad regime.

Last weekend, the Syrian rebels in the southern city of Dara agreed to surrender. State television reported that the regime's forces had raised the country's flag in the city, and the Al-Akhbariya network published pictures of regime officials waving the Syrian flag over rubble in the southern city after the rebels agreed to transfer control of the city to their hands.

Tens of thousands of people have been sheltering at the frontier since the government offensive began one month ago. 

The offensive has restored Syrian government control over a swathe of the southwest, strategically vital territory at the borders with Jordan and Israel. 

It has been one of the swiftest military campaigns of the seven-year-long war. The United States, which once armed the southern rebels, told them not to expect its intervention as the offensive got underway. Many surrendered quickly. 

Rebellion
While swathes of Syria remain outside his control, Assad's advances over the past two years have brought him ever closer to snuffing out the armed rebellion that grew out of a civilian uprising against his rule in 2011.

It leaves the insurgency with one last big foothold - a chunk of territory in the northwest at the border with Turkey stretching from Idlib province to the city of Jarablus northeast of Aleppo. The deployment of the Turkish military in that area will complicate further gains for Assad. 

Idlib's population has been swollen by Syrians fleeing from Assad's advances elsewhere. 

Large areas of the northeast and east also remain outside Assad's grasp. These areas are held by Kurdish-led militias, supported by 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground. 

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, appealed to all sides in Syria to provide safe passage for 140,000 civilians displaced by fighting in the southwest so that they can receive aid and shelter. 
The offensive triggered the biggest single displacement of the war, with 320,000 people uprooted at first. UNHCR said tens of thousands of displaced people had returned following local agreements in areas that returned to state control.