Israel prepares to reopen Syrian border

Israel and Jordan agreed to reopen vital crossings into war-torn Syria, despite continuing unrest in the country and Iranian encroachment.

By: AP and World Israel News Staff

Israel confirmed on Sunday it would reopen the Quneitra crossing with Syria, facilitating entry and exit by U.N. observers four years after the crossing was closed because of brutal fighting in Syria’s bloody civil war.

Jordan and Syria also agreed Sunday to reopen a vital border crossing between the two countries, three years after the commercial lifeline fell to rebel groups and traffic was halted.

Israel’s military announced that the United Nations had decided to return its peacekeeping force, known as UNDOF, to the Quneitra crossing area, which will be used exclusively for U.N. forces, it added.

The Syrian government plans to escort media to the crossing Monday.

Syrian forces recaptured the Quneitra area in July. Russian military police deployed in the area, including on the edge of the Israeli territory in the Golan, setting up checkpoints in the area. Moscow said it planned to work closely with the U.N. force.

Israel captured the Golan Heights in the 1967 war, after four Arab nations ambushed the Jewish state.

The UNDOF deployed in the area in 1974.

Big Win for Assad?

The reopening of the crossings is a major boost to the Syrian government, keen on sending messages to its citizens and the world that it is slowly emerging victorious from the bloody conflict and beginning to restore vital services and relations. In eastern Syria, state TV said its broadcast has returned to Deir el-Zour city, seven years after it was halted when armed groups seized control of the area.

Reopening the crossing with Jordan would bring major relief to President Bashar Assad’s government by restoring a much-needed gateway for Syrian exports to Arab countries. It is also expected to boost its coffers as the government is expected to collect transit fees from convoys coming from Jordan. Last month, it hiked fees for all trailers transiting through its territories.

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.

Jordan government spokeswoman Jumana Ghunaimat said the Naseeb crossing would be opened Monday after operational details have been agreed upon, according to the Jordanian Petra news agency. Syria’s Interior Minister Mohammed al-Shaar also confirmed the crossing’s reopening, according to Syria’s state news agency.

“The Naseeb crossing is a vital lifeline for trade between the two brotherly countries Jordan and Syria through them to other Arab countries,” Ghunaimat said, according to Petra. Rebels seized the crossing in 2015, disrupting a major trade route between Syria and Jordan, Lebanon and oil-rich Gulf countries.

The two governments had earlier issued conflicting reports of when the crossing would open.

Syrian troops recaptured it in July this year after rebels reached an agreement with Russian mediators to end the violence in the southern province of Daraa and surrender the crossing.

Lebanon’s Gateway to Foreign Markets

The crossing is also vital for Syria’s neighboring Lebanon, providing its agricultural products a route to foreign markets.

The recapture of Naseeb crossing 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.

Fighting has subsided across most of Syria, but in the absence of a political deal, more than 40 percent of the country’s territory remains in the hands of armed opposition and their foreign supporters.

Government forces, aided by Russian air craft and allied militia, chased IS fighters out of the city and most of the western banks of the Euphrates river last year.

In a separate offensive that occasionally raised tensions, rival U.S.-backed Syrian Defense Forces fought the militants on the eastern banks of the river and along the border with Iraq. The Kurdish-led forces, backed by U.S.-led coalition air power, continue to battle IS militants in Hajin, a small pocket east of the river.

On Saturday, IS militants stormed a settlement for displaced people in Hajin and abducted scores of civilians. The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 130 families were kidnapped.

The U.S.-led coalition said it couldn’t confirm news of the kidnapping. It said it has been dropping leaflets requesting that civilians leave the area for months “to avoid the brutal tactics” of the extremist group.

IS “has used innocent civilians as human shields in the past and leaflets often give them instructions for the quickest and safest exits, but we fully understand many have no other places to go,” said Col. Sean Ryan, spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition.

Omar Abou Leila, a Deir el-Zour native residing in Europe who runs the Deir el-Zour 24 news network, said the militants also kidnapped SDF fighters.

Images appeared on social media of the militants holding at least a couple of men wearing uniforms. In the posting, the militants boasted it has taken Kurdish fighters captive. Ryan, of the coalition, said he could not confirm whether SDF fighters were kidnapped.

Deir el-Zour, Syria’s oil-rich province, has been scene to fighting between government forces and insurgents since the start of the war in 2011. The militants seized control of most of it in 2014. But IS has lost most of its self-declared caliphate in Syria and Iraq over the last two years.