QUNEITRA, Syria – Syrian government officials and lawmakers celebrated Friday with music and an official flag raising ceremony the recapture of this symbolic southern town adjacent to the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights from armed groups that controlled it for more than four years.
The ceremony was attended by hundreds of Syrians from nearby villages, who sang along to the national anthem.
Hundreds waved flags as they danced and cheered the Syrian army and affiliated militias.
The picture of President Bashar Assad was hoisted on a partially destroyed monument in the town's center, where his father more than four decades ago raised the Syrian flag after Israel withdrew.
The highly symbolic town has been abandoned since Israel destroyed it as it withdrew in 1974 following the Mideast war. But Israel continued to occupy the adjacent Golan Heights which it seized since 1967.
A cease-fire and a disengagement agreement have largely held along the demarcation lines for the past four decades.
But during the Syrian civil war, armed groups captured the town and large swaths of southwest Syria, forcing the U.N. peacekeeping force in Syria to evacuate.
The celebrations took place as Syrian soldiers finalized their deployment to restore their positions along the demarcation line, for the first time since 2014.
The soldiers also deployed to the crossing that connects Quneitra to the Golan. Even though the countries are at war, families from the local Druze community divided by the demarcation line use the crossing to exchange visits. Farmers also used to send apples over the frontier.
"We are happy to regain control of the crossing...It was a dream to restore control," said a field commander, speaking on condition of anonymity in lines with regulations.
He said his uncle died in Quneitra in 2014 when he fought against the advancing armed opposition.
The commander said it is now a matter of time before the U.N. peacekeeping force redeploys and civilians can once more start using the crossing.
The Britain-based war monitoring group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that with the government's control of the town and crossing, only a handful of villages in Quneitra province remain outside of government control.
For years, the Syrian government had left the destruction in Quneitra as a reminder of the war with Israel.
Signs of the latest conflict can now also be seen. On the drive to Quneitra, reporters crossed a large sand barrier, apparently erected by the armed opposition to separate the areas they controlled. Right past it, a fresh layer of dirt filled what appeared to be a large trench dug by the insurgents for fortification.
A village a few kilometers from Quneitra lied in utter devastation, apparently from the recent fighting.
The government offensive against the armed opposition in control of large areas in southwestern Syria began on June 19. Since, the government has seized most of the areas in Daraa and Quneitra provinces along the border with Jordan and the Golan. Its forces are now battling remnants of the Islamic State group, which continues to hold territory at the southern tip of the region.
"I came to celebrate victory," said Marwan Ahmed Abdullah, a 49-year old Syrian whose four sons fought in the war, including one who was killed. "We'll sacrifice our souls for Syria. What matters is for peace and security to return to Syria like before."
Another reveler, 50-year old Mohammed Khaba from Khan Arnabah, a village to the northeast, said he came to celebrate the expulsion of the armed opposition.
"It is a source of pride for every Syrian. It is proof that we are able to expunge terrorism from all over the country."
The Syrian government considers all armed opposition fighting it terrorist groups.
For Omar Ayoub, it was a long-awaited homecoming. He had not been to Quneitra since 2012 when it became embroiled in the civil war.
Dressed in the ethnic minority Circassians' traditional garb, the 40-year old said he was "ecstatic" to return to the capital of his native hometown.
Originally from the occupied Golan Heights, Ayoub has been living in Damascus since his family was displaced by the war with Israel.
But he had repeatedly returned to the area, which is home to Circassians as well as the minority Druze community, until the armed opposition seized it.
"I am ecstatic to raise the flag and God willing through Quneitra we'll regain all occupied lands. I am certain."