Israel-Syria border
Israel-Syria borderiStock

A day after the pro-Assad coalition launched what The Mirror in the United Kingdom called a “Doomsday attack” on the densely populated city of Nawa in southern Daraa near the Israeli border on the Golan Heights, the Syrian rebels in the Quneitra region decided to surrender without a fight.

The predominantly Islamist rebels agreed to surrender terms dictated by the Assad regime while the deal was negotiated by the Russian military in Syria.

The rebels and their families were given the choice of accepting safe passage to the Idlib province in northwest Syria, home to large Sunni Arab population, or to remain in Quneitra on terms dictated by the regime in Damascus.

The deal marks another decisive victory for the Iranian-Russian backed pro-Assad coalition which has recovered control over large swatches of territory throughout Syria since the Russian intervention in September 2016.

The Syrian army, which has turned into an Iranian proxy, will now return to pre-2011 positions along the Israeli border, Reuters and other media reported on Thursday.

A copy of the deal sent to Reuters showed that the 90th and the 61st brigade of the Syrian army will return to positions they held prior to the 2011 uprising against the Syrian dictator, while Russian military police would safeguard the execution of the agreement.

The Israeli broadcaster Kan reported earlier that Israel and Russia are negotiating a return to the 1974 demarcation lines by the Syrian army according to the Separation of Forces Agreement of May 1974.

The Israeli and Russian governments have formed working groups which are currently studying issues such as the re-installment of the demilitarized zones and no-man’s land on the Golan Heights, as well as the deployment of Syrian and IDF forces along the border on the mountainous plateau.

The Kan report effectively confirmed what Russian president Vladimir Putin said after his meeting with US president Donald Trump earlier this week.

“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 told reporters after his meeting with Trump in Helsinki, Finland.

Putin did not address the Israeli demand that Russia would ensure an Iranian exit from Syria.

“We won’t take action against the Assad regime, and you get the Iranians out,” Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu reportedly told Putin during his last meeting with the Russian leader in Moscow on Wednesday last week.

Both Putin and Trump agreed to work together to ensure Israel’s security during their summit in Finland, but if we are to believe the Russian paper Kommersant which interviewed Levan Dzhagaryan, the Russian ambassador in Iran, Putin is not willing to accede to Netanyahu’s demand about the presence of the Iranian Quds Force in Syria.

Dzhagaryan told Kommersant that Iran’s presence in Syria is “legitimate” since it is present in the war-torn country at Assad’s request.

“Iran is not a (small) country you can force it out. Iran is a big country that pursues an independent foreign policy. Working with Iranians can only be done through convincing. Pressuring Iran will have adverse effect,” the Russian diplomat claimed.

The only thing Russia is willing to do is to prevent a confrontation between the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Israeli army.

“There have been conflicts from time to time there and we are naturally concerned about the possibility of a military confrontation between the Iranian and Israeli forces in Syria. we will do our best to prevent tensions from escalating,” according to Dzhagaryan.

Another problem with a return to the Separation of Forces Agreement is that it will limit Israel’s abilities to act against the Quds Force and the Iranian-backed Shiite militias in Syria.

The Assad regime is reportedly claiming that the 1974 agreement forbids the Israeli air force (IAF) from entering Syrian airspace on the Golan Heights and also prohibits strikes against aircraft of the pro-Assad coalition flying over the buffer zones on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

The IDF and IAF have repeatedly shot down Syrian and Iranian drones which were about to enter Israeli airspace on the Golan Heights. On July 13 the IDF used a Patriot missile to down a drone which has already flown 10 kilometer over the Israeli side of the Golan Heights.

Reinstalling the Separation of Forces Agreement will probably also make other IAF strikes against Iranian targets in Syria illegal under international law, since the agreement clearly states that all Israeli forces must be west of the demarcation line.

“Air forces of the two sides will be permitted to operate up to their respective lines without interference from the other side,” according to point 6 of the agreement.

The deal furthermore stated that deployment of military forces in the buffer zones is prohibited.

Yochanan Visser is an independent journalist/analyst who worked for many years as Middle East correspondent for Western in Arizona and was a frequent publicist for the main Dutch paper De Volkskrant. He authoreda book in the Dutch language about the cognitive war against Israel and now lives in Gush Etzion. He writes a twice weekly analysis of current issues for Arutz Sheva.