BEIRUT: Syrian rebels began evacuating the border with the Israeli-occupied 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 al-Assad’s control of the frontier.
With a Russian-backed government offensive closing in, rebels in Quneitra province have agreed to either accept the return of state rule, or leave to Idlib province in the north, echoing terms imposed on defeated rebels elsewhere in Syria.
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 UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
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.
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.
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 US 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.