Syria rebels begin leaving zone near Golan: state media

Syrian rebels and their families stand by buses to be evacuated from Daraa city, on July 15, 2018, as Syrian government forces heavily bombed the neighbouring province of Quneitra making a ground advance in the zone. (File photo: AFP)
Updated 20 July 2018

Syria rebels begin leaving zone near Golan: state media

  • Syrian rebels began evacuating the border with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights
  • Rebels in Quneitra province have agreed to either accept the return of state rule, or leave to Idlib province in the north

DAMASCUS: Hard-line rebels and civilians began leaving a southwestern sliver of Syria near the Israeli-annexed Golan on Friday under a surrender deal, state media, as the evacuations turned deadly with a car accident.
The transfers come under a deal agreed this week between Russia and Syrian rebels in Quneitra province that will restore state control over the sensitive zone.
Rebels will hand over territory they control in Quneitra and the neighboring buffer zone with the Golan Heights.
The deal also provides for the evacuation to northern Syria of any rebels and militant fighters who refuse to live under government control.
On Friday afternoon, buses began taking civilians and armed fighters out of opposition-held territory through the town of Jaba, state television said.
It said they would be taken north to Idlib which is under militant and rebel control. The channel earlier reported more than 50 buses were prepared to ferry people north.
Vehicles had been arriving in Syria’s south since Thursday, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“As the convoy of buses was gathering, one of the drivers lost control and four people, including two women, were run over and killed,” said the Britain-based monitor.
Fighters then fired their weapons, wounding a bus driver.
Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman said it was still unclear exactly how many people would ultimately be evacuated.
Among them were members of Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s onetime Syria affiliate which refused to sign up to the deal.
Quneitra is a thin, crescent-shaped province wedged between the buffer to the west and Daraa province to its east.
One month ago, Syria’s regime launched an operation to retake rebel areas in Daraa and Quneitra, using military force and surrender deals brokered by its Russian ally.
Fighting forced several hundred thousand people to flee, and as many as 140,000 remain displaced in Quneitra, according to the United Nations.
The UN’s humanitarian coordination office (OCHA) warned they are inaccessible to aid organizations based around an hour away in Damascus because of a lack of approvals.
Both Israel and Jordan, which shares a border with Syria, have kept their borders closed to the displaced.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometers (460 square miles) of the Golan during the Six-Day War of 1967, then annexed it in 1981 in a move never recognized internationally.
Some 510 square kilometers of the Golan remain on Syria’s side of the cease-fire line, with a UN peacekeeping force overseeing a buffer zone stretching some 70 kilometers from Lebanon in the north to Jordan in the south.
Under the terms of the deal, a rebel source told AFP, Syrian and Russian forces are to enter the buffer zone.

Assad regime renews threat to attack Idlib after militants refuse to pull out

Updated 13 min 4 sec ago

Assad regime renews threat to attack Idlib after militants refuse to pull out

  • Province ‘must return to Syrian sovereignty,’ minister warns as buffer-zone deal hangs in balance
  • Syrian FM says it is now up to Russia to judge whether the agreement, which averted a regime offensive last month, was being fulfilled

BEIRUT: The Assad regime renewed its threat on Monday to launch an offensive in Idlib province in northwest Syria after militants defied a Russia-Turkey deal for them to pull out.

The fighters failed to meet the Oct. 15 deadline for them to withdraw from a planned buffer zone around Syria’s last opposition stronghold.

“Our armed forces are ready around Idlib to eradicate terrorism if the Idlib agreement is not implemented,” Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Moualem said at a press conference in Damascus with the Iraqi Foreign Minister Ibrahim Al-Jaafari.

“Idlib, as any other province, has to return to Syrian sovereignty. We prefer to have it through peaceful means, through reconciliation, but if not there are other options.”

Al-Moualem said it was now up to Russia to judge whether the agreement, which averted a regime offensive last month, was being fulfilled. “We have to wait for the Russian reaction. Russia is monitoring and following the situation,” he said.

When Idlib was recaptured from the opposition, the regime would turn its attention to territory held by the Kurdish-led and US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, the minister said. “After Idlib, our target is east of the Euphrates,” which must also return to Syrian sovereignty, he said.

Civilians in Idlib said they were concerned about an increase in violence if the Russian-Turkish accord collapsed. “We fear the deal’s sponsors will fail to implement all its points, and that the bombardment and battles will return,” one said.

The deal provides for a 15-20 km horseshoe-shaped buffer zone around opposition-held areas in Idlib and the neighboring provinces of Latakia, Hama and Aleppo.

The dominant militant force in the region is Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an alliance led by Al-Qaeda’s former Syrian branch. The group has signaled that it would abide by the terms of the deal, although it has not explicitly said so.

“We value the efforts of all those striving — at home and abroad — to protect the liberated area and prevent its invasion and the perpetration of massacres in it,” HTS said.

Elsewhere in Syria, the Assad regime on Monday reopened a vital border post with Jordan and a crossing into the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

Two white jeeps crossed into Israeli-occupied territory during a low-key ceremony to mark the reopening of the Quneitra crossing in the Golan, four years after it was closed when Syrian opposition forces seized nearby territory.

In the south, and three years after it too was closed, a black metal border gate opened at the Nassib crossing into Jordan as police and customs officials stood nearby.

The Jordan crossing was previously a major trading route, while the remote Quneitra post is used primarily by a UN force that monitors a cease-fire line separating Israeli-occupied parts of the Golan Heights from Syria.

Syrian businessman Hisham Falyoun, who lives in Jordan with his wife and children, was the first person to cross the border in his black Mercedes SUV.

“I wanted to be the first person to cross to show everyone that Syria is safe, Syria is back,” said Falyoun, who was hoping to surprise his parents in Damascus.