Syrian rebels have agreed with Russia, which supports the government regime, to the negotiated surrender of a sensitive southwestern zone bordering the Israeli Golan Heights, a monitor said Thursday.
Quneitra is a thin, crescent-shaped province that lies along the buffer zone with the Israeli Golan Heights to the west.
Rebels have held most of the province and the buffer zone for years but would hand over their territory as part of the surrender deal, said the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“The deal provides for a ceasefire, the handover of heavy and medium weapons, and the return of government institutions to the area,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
Syrian police forces would take over current opposition territory in the buffer zone, he told AFP.
Those that refuse the terms of the agreement would be granted safe passage to opposition territory in northern Syria, he added.
A member of the rebel delegation to the talks confirmed to AFP that a deal had been reached for government forces to enter the buffer zone but said it was unclear when it would be implemented.
State news agency SANA said it had preliminary information on a deal for the army to return to its pre-2011 positions in the area, but did not provide more details.
The deal, according to the Observatory, does not include Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, a jihadist-led alliance that holds territory straddling the provinces of Quneitra and neighboring Daraa.
Israel is reportedly in talks with Russia for arrangements in the border area to return to demarcation lines drawn up in 1974 following the Yom Kippur War the year before. Those arrangements include two separation lines with a no man’s land between them and a UN patrolled buffer zone.
Russian President Valdimir Putin said he and US President Donald Trump agreed on securing Israel’s border with Syria in accordance with the 1974 plan deal when the two men met in Helsinki on Monday.
When terrorist forces are wiped out in south and west Syria, Putin said, “the situation on the Golan Heights must be restored to what it was after the 1974 agreement, which set out the terms for the disengagement of forces between Israel and Syria.”
Putin, speaking at a joint press conference with the US leader following their private meeting, said this would “restore quiet to the Golan Height, bring a more peaceful relationship between Syria and Israel, and also provide security to the state of Israel.”
Both the United States and Israel are also worried about Iran’s growing military presence in Syria, where it has provided crucial aid to Assad’s forces. Russia, another key backer of Assad, has reportedly agreed to remove Iranian troops from the border region but allow them to remain in other parts of Syria.
Israel has repeatedly said it will not allow Iran, or its Shiite proxies, to establish a permanent presence in postwar Syria that could threaten the Jewish state.
Russia has warned it was unrealistic to expect Iran to fully withdraw from the country, but there have been signs of an emerging compromise between Moscow and Jerusalem on the issue. Senior Israeli officials say Russia is working to prevent Iran from entrenching its military along Israel’s northern border with Syria, according to Hebrew media reports.