Besieged Syrian rebels near the country’s three-way border with Israel and Lebanon near Mt. Hermon have been ordered by surrounding regime forces to surrender or face defeat, Reuters reported Tuesday night.
“They were given 72 hours to surrender with fighters to go to [rebel-held] Idlib or those who want to stay have to reach a settlement,” said a Free Syrian Arm official said.
Rebels are situated in Beit Jinn, and are facing Syrian military forces as well as Iranian-backed militias and the Hezbollah terrorist group. Fierce fighting has been reported in the area in recent days as the forces backing President Bashar Assad advanced on the rebels.
Hezbollah has said the rebels intend to surrender and talks have begun on the terms.
Suhaib al Ruhail, an official from the Liwa al Furqan rebel group operating in the area, told Reuters Monday that “the Iran-backed militias are trying to consolidate their sphere of influence all the way from southwest of Damascus to the Israeli border.”
The Beit Jinn area is the last significant rebel-held enclave southwest of Damascus.
Thousands of Shite fighters are up against several hundred rebels including those of the Free Syrian Army, a loosely affiliated group of militias, some of which have been received military aid and weapons from Western countries, including the US.
Rebels still hold other areas in central and southern Quneitra on Golan Heights, the report said.
Israel, concerned that Iran will increase its reach into Syria via its militias and in particular powerful Hezbollah, has taken diplomatic and, reportedly, military action. Jerusalem fears that the Iranian presence in that area would serve as a springboard for terrorist groups to attack Israel in the future.
In September a Hezbollah commander said the group has 10,000 fighters in southern Syria ready to confront Israel. Israel last fought a full-scale war with Hezbollah in 2006’s Second Lebanon War, and tensions have remained high even as the northern border has been relatively quiet.
Led by Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah is believed to have an arsenal of between 100,000 and 150,000 short-, medium- and long-range missiles and a fighting force of some 50,000 soldiers, including reservists.
It is seen by the IDF as its main threat, representing the standard by which the Israeli army measures its preparedness.
When Russia and Washington agreed last July that southwest Syria be a deescalation zone, Israel lobbied both countries for any future ceasefire agreement in the region to include a stipulation that Iran and its forces be kept back from the Israeli border, but with limited success.
In November, an Israeli official said that under a deal hammered out between the US, Russia, and Jordan, militias associated with Iran would be allowed to maintain positions as little as five to seven kilometers (3.1-4.3 miles) from the border in some areas, Reuters reported at the time.
At the beginning of December, Arab media attributed an airstrike near Damascus to Israel, with some reports saying the target was a military base that Iran is building in the area, about 50 kilometers (31 miles) from the Israeli border.
The alleged Israeli attack came three weeks after the BBC reported that Iran was building a permanent military base in Syria just south of Damascus. The British broadcaster commissioned a series of satellite pictures that showed widespread construction at the site.
Stuart Winer and AP contributed to this report.