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BEIRUT – Syrian rebels laid down their weapons and started evacuating their positions near the Golan Heights on Friday, paving the way for President Bashar Assad's forces to retake their positions along the Israeli frontier for the first time since 2011.
Buses carried the first batch of rebels, their family members, and assorted civilians from the southwest Quneitra province to the northwest Idlib province, where they will live among more than one million other Syrians displaced by Syria's seven-year-long civil war.
The state-controlled al-Ikhbariya TV station reported that a second convoy of buses was preparing to depart with another batch of Quneitra fighters.
Since June 19, government forces aided by Russian air power have swept through southwestern Syria to consolidate Assad's control over this strategic corner of the country. It puts the government back on the front-line again with Israel, and opens a sorely needed corridor for trade between Damascus and Jordan.
Rebels have surrendered villages, towns and cities in swift succession, powerless to stop the onslaught.
On Thursday, rebels agreed to give up their positions in the Quneitra province and hand over their medium and heavy weapons. Those refusing to accept the surrender terms are being evacuated to Idlib.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group said it expected around 4,000 rebels will likely choose relocating to Idlib.
The U.N. and human rights organizations have condemned the evacuations as forced displacement. Few who have left are expected to be able to return to their homes in the near-term.
Opposition activists and rescue workers are also seeking escape, distrustful of the government's infamous security apparatus.
U.S. officials said on Thursday that the United States was finalizing plans to evacuate several hundred Syrian Civil Defense workers, also known as the White Helmets, and their families from the province through neighboring countries.
Syria and Israel fought two wars over their shared border, in 1967 and 1973, with Israel occupying the Golan Heights in the Quneitra province in the former confrontation.
But Israel has refrained from taking sides in Syria's seven-year-long civil war, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has indicated he does not object to the government's return to southwest Syria — as long as Israel's archenemies Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah stay clear of the frontier.
An affiliate of the Islamic State group continues to hold a sliver of the frontier. The group is not party to the agreement between the government and rebels. Government jets pounded targets in the IS-held Yarmouk Basin area on Friday, the Observatory reported.
Meanwhile, Russia's Defense Ministry said it has proposed to the United States the creation of a joint group along with Jordan for organizing the return of refugees to Syria.
The group would be established with the oversight of the US-Russian-Jordanian center established last year in Amman for monitoring the cease-fire in southwest Syria, Maj.-Gen.Milkahil Mizintsev said Friday.
"Active progress in this direction is promoted by the agreements reached by the Presidents of Russia and the United States of America during the (Monday) meeting in Helsinki ... organizing work on the return of refugees to their places of permanent residence," he said at a briefing.
A similar operation would be established in Lebanon, he said.