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Syria’s Assad set to recover Golan frontier as surrender deal agreed: sources

Jul. 19, 2018

BEIRUT/AMMAN: President Bashar Assad is set to recover control of the Syrian frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in a major victory over rebels who have agreed to surrender terms, sources on both sides said Thursday.

Backed by Russian air power and unopposed by Assad’s foreign adversaries, government forces have swept through southwestern Syria in the last month in one of the swiftest campaigns of the war, forcing surrender on massively outgunned rebels.

The campaign, which has already restored Assad’s control over a critical portion of the frontier with Jordan, marks another milestone in his efforts to recover control of the country fractured by more than seven years of conflict.

There was no government confirmation of the Qunaitra agreement. State media cited “reports” a deal had been reached. It was not clear when implementation would begin.

A copy of the agreement sent to Reuters by a rebel source said insurgents had negotiated the deal with Russia.

Echoing surrender terms imposed on rebels elsewhere, opposition fighters agreed to give up heavy and medium-sized weapons. Those wishing to stay in the area will “settle” their status with the state, meaning accepting a return of its rule.

Those who reject the deal will be given safe passage out to the opposition-held province of Idlib in the northwest, according to terms that were also reported by Hezbollah’s war media center. Iran-backed Hezbollah is fighting in Syria in support of Assad.

Once the southwestern campaign is finished, Assad’s focus will likely turn to the two remaining areas outside his grasp.

These are the rebel-held northwest, where the presence of Turkish forces will complicate any military campaign, and swathes of the northeast and east that are held by Kurdish-led militias, supported by some 2,000 U.S. troops on the ground.

As Damascus and its allies pursue military victory, there appears little chance of the kind of negotiated peace which Assad’s adversaries say is needed to stabilize the country and encourage millions of refugees to return.

The war is estimated to have killed hundreds of thousands of people, displacing 11 million and forcing some six million abroad as refugees.

A Reuters witness on the Israeli side of the Golan frontier said fighting continued in the area of Tel al-Haara, a strategically vital hilltop seized by government forces this week. The sound of planes could be heard as shelling continued.

The campaign near the Golan frontier has been particularly sensitive because of Israeli concerns. Israel has signaled it has no problem with Assad recovering the area as long his Iranian and Iran-backed allies were kept away from the frontier.

Israel has also said it would demand strict adherence to the 1974 disengagement deal with the Syrian army on the Golan, threatening a “harsh response” to any attempt by Syrian forces to deploy in that zone. The deal, concluded after the 1973 Mideast War, created a buffer zone patrolled by the U.N. Disengagement and Observer Force.

The report by the Hezbollah’s war media center said the surrender agreement stipulated “the return of the Syrian army, represented in the 90th and the 61st brigades, to the positions that it was in before 2011”.

Details of the deal sent by the rebel source included a provision that Russian military police would accompany the same two Syrian army brigades “to the ceasefire line and the demilitarized zone, according to the 1974 agreement”.

The provisions did not elaborate on any implications of the deployment of military units on the 1974 agreement.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, during a visit to Russia to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin this month, indicated his country did not object to Assad’s return to the Golan as long as Iranian force and Hezbollah stayed away.

In a briefing with Israeli reporters, he said Israel had not had a problem “with the Assad regime for 40 years”, noting that “not one bullet was fired on the Golan Heights” in that time.

Israeli media accounts of the meeting with Putin also quoted him as saying that the Russians had succeeded getting Iranian and Hezbollah forces to move dozens of kilometers away from the Golan frontier.

U.S. President Donald Trump said at a news conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Monday in Helsinki that both had agreed to work together to help ensure Israel’s security.

Putin, Assad’s most powerful ally, cited the need to restore the situation along the Golan borders to the state that prevailed before the outbreak of the Syrian crisis in 2011.

Israel has been pressing Russia to rein in Iranian and Iran-backed forces that have been fighting in support of Assad. Israel has stepped up attacks against what it describes as Iranian and Iran-backed targets in Syria this year

Hamas Spokesman Says Cease-fire Reached With Israel

Israeli soldier killed by Palestinian snipers; Israel pounds Hamas targets in Gaza ■ Four Hamas members killed in attack after snipers target Israeli soldiers ■ Three rockets launched from Gaza, two intercepted by Iron Dome

Israel and Hamas have agreed to restore calm in the Gaza Strip, a spokesman for Hamas said on Saturday, after the Israel Defense Forces launched a massive attack on the Gaza Strip late Friday evening, following an exchange of fire between Israeli troops and Palestinians in Gaza.

“With Egyptian and United Nations efforts it has been agreed to return to the era of calm between [Israel] and Palestinian factions,” Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum told Reuters.

During Friday’s clashes, an Israeli soldier was killed by Palestinian gunmen along the Gaza border. The soldier’s family has been informed of his death. The soldier was the first to be killed on the Gaza front in active duty since the 2014 war between Israel and Hamas, an Israeli army spokesman said.

Four Palestinians were also killed in the exchange. Hamas’ armed wing, Izzedine al-Qassam Brigades, confirmed that the four were members of the organization.

00.50 a.m.: Israeli army says some 60 Hamas targets were destroyed 

The Israeli army said its tanks had hit 68 Hamas targets and had “eliminated about 60 buildings and infrastructures and revoked significant military and command and control capabilities.”

23:15 p.m.: Israeli army completes strike on 25 Hamas terror targets

The Israeli army said it completed the strike of 25 Hamas targets located in Hamas’ Khan Yunis army command in the southern Gaza Strip.

The assault destroyed the command’s control and command abilities, ruined its offices and damaged aerial maneuvering and defense abilities.

The attack also destroyed a storage facility for unmanned aerial vehicles, observation posts and a factory manufacturing underground infrastructures. The military said that the attacks will continue.

10:11 p.m.: Army continues extensive attacks, says it struck 15 targets

The Israeli military said the attack on Hamas targets was still ongoing. 15 Hamas targets were struck in the northern Gaza Strip, the army said in a statement. Among them was a Hamas army command that housed ammunition storage facilities, training sites, observation posts, a situation room, command and control rooms and other infrastructures.

9:55 p.m.: Netanyahu holds additional security assessment at army headquarters

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is currently holding an additional security assessment discussion with Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, army chief Gadi Eisenkot, Shin Bet head Nadav Argaman and other military officials at the army headquarters in Tel Aviv. (Noa Landau)

9:31 p.m.: Defense Minister Lieberman tells UN Hamas is deteriorating situation on purpose

Defense Minister Avgidor Lieberman spoke to the United Nations’ Middle East ambassador, Nickolay Mladenov, about the deterioration on the Gaza border.

Lieberman told Mladenov in their phone call that Israel “will respond harshly and from now on all the responsibility lies with the Hamas leadership. If Hamas continues launching rockets, the result will be a lot worse than they think. The responsibility for all the wreckage and lost lives will be on Hamas.”

9:15 pm: Knesset Member Ayman Odeh says government has failed to properly assess the siutation 

Arab leader Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint List, spoke out about the ongoing escalation, calling on the government to find solutions.

“The residents of Gaza have been crying for months under the Israeli siege, and the government has failed to understand that more attacks and fighting will only broaden the bloodbath. This is the time to talk about Israel’s responsibility for Gaza and for justice. Now is the time to talk about solutions rather than revolutions,” he said.

8:58 p.m.: Three rockets launched at Israel; two intercepted by Iron Dome

The Israeli army said that the third rocket fell in an open area near Kibbutz Nahal Oz. No injuries or damage were reported.

8:27 p.m.: Rocket alerts sound in Gaza-border communities

8:17 p.m.: UN Middle East envoy calls for de-escalation 

The UN’s Middle East envoy, Nikolay Mladenov, took to Twitter to pen an especially sharply-worded message following the escalation, writing: “Everyone in #Gaza needs to step back from the brink. Not next week. Not tomorrow. Right NOW! Those who want to provoke #Palestinians and #Israelis into another war must not succeed.”

8:04 p.m.: IDF announces extensive attack on terror targets

The Israeli army stated that “at this hour, IDF jet planes started an extensive attack on terror targets related to the Hamas terror organization throughout the Gaza Strip.”

The military said the attack came in response to “a grave shooting incident against our forces.”

“Hamas chose to deteriorate the security situation and will bear the responsibility for its actions. The army is in heightened preparedness,” the statement read.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot convened top defense officials and political leaders in Tel Aviv on Friday evening to assess the situation. The IDF views the attack as a very serious incident, but does not currently know who carried it out

According to the Israeli military, the army used tank and artillery fire to strike several Hamas targets along the Strip in response to Palestinian snipers shooting at troops in southern Gaza. The IDF Spokesperson’s Unit said the IDF attacked eight Hamas targets.

Israelis living near the Gaza border have been ordered to remain close to shelters over concerns that Palestinians may fire rockets toward Gaza-border communities.

Hamas security forces have started evacuating army commands and posts over fears that the Israeli army might attack them in the coming hours.

Two of the Palestinians killed died in an Israeli attack on a Hamas post east of Khan Yunis. The third man was killed by Israeli fire close to Rafah.

At the same time, thousands of Palestinians marched toward the Israeli border with Gaza as part of weekly demonstrations dubbed “the march of return.”

So far, 140 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire during such protests, which began last March and reached their height when the U.S. Embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Last weekend, two Palestinians were killed at a demonstration near the border. One of them was a 15-year-old boy; 220 people were injured. An Israeli officer was injured moderately after a stun grenade was hurled at him by Palestinian demonstrators in the northern Gaza Strip. In response to the attack on the officer, the army opened fire on the protesters.

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman warned earlier Friday that Hamas is forcing Israel into a situation that may demand a “broad, painful military operation” that will be larger than the last one in 2014.

“We are trying to be measured and responsible, but the leaders of Hamas are leading us into a situation in which there is no choice, a situation in which we will have to embark on a broad and painful military operation, not only for appearances,” Lieberman said on a visit to the southern city of Sderot.

He added that such an operation would be “more painful than Operation Protective Edge” for Hamas. “Unfortunately, residents of Gaza will be among those who will have to pay the price,” he said.

The defense minister suggested the possibility of easing economic restrictions on Gaza in exchange for “a total cessation of terror and provocations at the [border] fence.” Hamas rejected Friday morning a similar idea raised in an op-ed by aides to U.S. President Donald Trump.

Reuters contributed to this story.