Fighters preparing to head north to opposition-held Idlib province, as Assad's forces consolidate their gains in the south
Syrian rebels have agreed to surrender a sensitive area bordering the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, an activist group and opposition source said on Thursday, the latest in a series of deals expanding government control over key territory.
The agreement follows another deal that saw thousands of residents evacuated on Thursday morning from two pro-government towns in northern Syria long besieged by hardline rebels.
Both deals, negotiated by government 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 force and negotiated surrenders, his forces this month captured more than 90 percent 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 an activist 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
- Rami Abdel Rahman, Observatory director
"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 group monitoring the war.
Syrian army forces would now take over opposition territory in the buffer zone and some rebel fighters would be bussed to opposition territory in northern Syria, he added.
Carrot and stick
The agreement, according to the Observatory, does not include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a militant-led alliance that holds territory straddling Quneitra and Daraa.
State news agency SANA said it had information on a deal for the army to return to its pre-2011 positions in the area, but did not provide more details.
A member of the rebel delegation to the talks said that a preliminary ceasefire agreement on Quneitra had been reached with Moscow but said it was unclear when it would be implemented.
As part of it, he told AFP, Syrian government forces accompanied by Russian military police would enter the buffer zone with the Golan.
Israel seized 1,200 square kilometres of the Golan from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed it, in a move never recognised internationally.
It sees security in the area as a top priority and has been on high alert since Assad began his assault on the south one month ago.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was in Moscow earlier this month for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Syria's south.
Russia is a decades-old ally of Syria's government and has used a carrot-and-stick strategy with the opposition to help Assad regain the upper hand across the country.
It has also been involved in talks that led to the evacuation of thousands of besieged people in a pair of pro-government towns in northern Syria.
'A huge loss'
Fuaa and Kafraya in Idlib province were the last remaining areas under blockade in Syria and a rare example of pro-government towns surrounded by rebel forces.
Besieged for three years by rebels and HTS, the Shia-majority towns had become a rallying cry for the government and Iran, another key government ally.
A deal between Russia and rebel ally Turkey saw thousands of residents bussed out early Thursday morning to government territory in adjacent Aleppo province.
The departure was emotional and bittersweet, said Shilan Shuweish, a resident of Fuaa bussed out with her husband and two children.
A fighter loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad is seen during the evacuation from the villages of al-Foua and Kefraya (Reuters)
"It's a huge loss," Shuweish, 28, said from the bus, writing to AFP via a mobile messaging app.
"We left our homes behind, but at the same time we've got kids here that until this day don't know what an apple is," she said.
Some 6,900 civilians and fighters left, leaving two towns "entirely empty of residents," the Observatory said.
"As the buses entered regime-held areas, the regime started releasing detainees, as per the deal," Abdel Rahman said.
According to HTS sources, 1,500 detainees would be released from government jails under the deal.
Some reports have suggested the evacuation deal would also spare Idlib a government military offensive.
The province borders Turkey to the northwest but is otherwise almost completely surrounded by government-held territory.
It is home to more than two million people, including Syrian civilians and rebels transferred from other opposition territory in surrender deals.