QUNEITRA CROSSING — A border crossing between enemy nations Syria and Israel reopened on Monday — four years after it closed as UN observers fled the area due to fierce fighting in the Syrian civil war. The move marked a de facto recognition by Israel that dictator President Bashar Assad has returned to govern in southern Syria, after he defeated rebel groups in the area earlier this summer.
The Syrian flag was raised at the Quneitra crossing, and as it reopened, the United Nations peacekeeping force UNDOF sent a number of white trucks from Syria to the Israeli side of the border.
“The opening of the crossing symbolizes the return of the enforcement of the 1974 disengagement agreement [between Israel and Syria],” Maj. Nehemia Berkey, the Israeli military liaison to UNDOF, told reporters.
The 1974 ceasefire accord marked the end of the previous year’s Yom Kippur War and established a buffer zone between the two countries. The area closest to the border became a full demilitarized zone, where only UNDOF and police could operate, while the rest of the buffer zone had strict limits on the number and types of military units and equipment allowed inside it.
“The crossing was closed in 2014 after hostile forces took over the area and has remained closed at the request of the other side ever since,” he said. “We expect [UNDOF] to again enforce the buffer zone and keep away hostile forces.”
It is hoped that in the future the crossing may be used by Druze citizens in Israel to visit family in Syria and for the passage of a small amount of goods, notably apples.
“But this will take some time,” a senior IDF officer said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
In the meantime, the crossing will be used solely by UNDOF troops, who will be allowed to pass back and forth in the morning and then again in the evening.
The UN observers left the Quneitra crossing in 2014 for the first time since deploying there in 1974 after Syrian rebels and terrorist groups took over the border zone.
UNDOF has slowly returned to the area, and its troops have begun patrolling the area, ensuring that both sides adhere to the 1974 agreement. However, the UN peacekeeping force is still missing some 300 soldiers — roughly the number in a battalion — who had been part of the mission before 2014.
The senior IDF officer said he expected UNDOF to bring in the 300 troops in the future, now that the situation along the border has stabilized, but said the peacekeeping force “could return to full operations there tomorrow if they wanted to.”
UN observers and local notables from the Druze community, the predominant population in the area, gathered near the crossing.
“It is a day of victory,” Youssef Jarbou, a Druze leader, told the Syrian Al-Ikhbariya TV from Quneitra, Syria.
On the Israeli side of the border, Nazeeh Ibrahim, 64, of the Druze town of Majdal Shams, was similarly excited.
“I hope we’ll be able to go through it all the time,” he told reporters.
Ibrahim said he had not been to Syria since 1967, when Israel took control of the Golan Heights in the Six Day War, but that his wife had been able to visit her brother there eight years ago.
As with most Druze living in the Israeli Golan, Ibrahim considers himself to be Syrian, forgoing Israeli citizenship, and is loyal to Assad’s “legal regime.”
“Every home on the the Golan Heights has family in Damascus,” he said in Arabic-accented Hebrew.
“We are Syrians and will remain Syrians, even if [Israel] gives us a national ID card,” Ibrahim said.
Syrian regime forces recaptured the Quneitra area in July. Russian military police have since deployed in the area, including close to Israel’s Golan Heights, setting up checkpoints. Moscow said it planned to work closely with the UN force.
US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley welcomed the upcoming reopening on Friday, saying it would allow peacekeepers to “step up their efforts to prevent hostilities in the Golan Heights region.”
“We look to both Israel and Syria to provide UN peacekeepers the access they need as well as assurances of their safety. We also call on Syria to take the necessary steps so UNDOF can safely and effectively deploy and patrol without interference,” Haley said in a statement.
She called on both countries to adhere to the ceasefire and “keep any military forces other than UN peacekeepers out of the area.”
Jordan-Syria crossing also reopens
Also on Monday, a crossing between Syria and Jordan was opened for the first time in three years, promising to restore trade and movement between the two countries that had halted because of the war. At the Naseeb crossing between Syria and Jordan, dozens of private cars lined up to cross from Jordan. Security personnel and dogs searched the vehicles.
“Today is a feast, a feast for the whole Arab and Islamic nations and for the whole World, this crossing is vital for the whole Arab countries,” said Mohammed Khalil, the first Syrian in line waiting to cross back into his country.
Naseeb’s reopening could bring major financial relief to Assad’s government by restoring a much-needed gateway for Syrian exports to Arab countries. The resumption of commercial trade through the crossing will also be a diplomatic victory for Assad, whose government has been isolated from its Arab neighbors since the war began in 2011.
Arab countries have boycotted the Syrian government since the early days of the war, freezing its membership in the 22-member state Arab League.
“The Naseeb crossing is a vital lifeline for trade between the two brotherly countries Jordan and Syria through them to other Arab countries,” Jordan government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat said.
Syrian rebels seized the crossing in 2015, disrupting a major trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and oil-rich Gulf countries.
Syrian government troops recaptured it in July, after rebels reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in the southern province of Daraa and surrender the crossing.
The crossing is also vital for Syria’s neighbor Lebanon, providing its agricultural products a route to foreign markets.
The recapture of Naseeb marked a major victory for Assad’s forces, which have been on a winning streak since 2015 when Russia threw its military weight behind Damascus. The victory in southern Syria signaled the return of his forces to Daraa province where the uprising against him began seven years ago.