AMMAN/BEIRUT • South Syrian rebels said they had agreed yesterday to lay down arms in a Russian-brokered deal that appeared to surrender Deraa province to the government, in another major victory for President Bashar al-Assad.
The Syrian government recovered the crucial Nassib Border Crossing with Jordan, held by rebels for three years, state media reported, after a fierce assault in insurgent territory along the frontier, backed by Russian air strikes.
Deraa province encompasses most of the area held by rebels in the south-west, one of their last remaining strongholds in Syria.
Mr Assad is also aiming to recover control of rebel-held areas of Quneitra province at the frontier with the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.
The government's advances in Deraa in a two-week offensive had brought large parts of the province back under state control and caused a massive rapid human exodus as hundreds of thousands of people fled.
Rebel sources said the deal brokered by Russia would allow civilians to return to their villages and towns, with Russia guaranteeing their protection.
Russian guarantees will also be extended to rebel fighters who wish to "settle their status" with the government - a process by which former insurgents accept to live under state rule again, the sources said.
Rebels who did not wish to return under Mr Assad's rule would leave for the insurgent stronghold in north-west Syria, they said.
Several witnesses along the Jordan border fence with Syria said they spotted armoured vehicles and a tank with a Russian flag heading to the Nassib crossing, an important trade artery.
A commander in a regional military alliance that backs Mr Assad said an Israeli air strike had hit a Syrian village in Quneitra yesterday, causing no casualties. Israel's military said it had hit a Syrian army post in that area.
The border assault of the past two weeks has created a new problem for Jordan in the shape of tens of thousands of civilians who have fled intensive aerial bombardment of their towns and moved towards the border.
Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said yesterday that the return of tens of thousands of displaced Syrians in southern Syria was the kingdom's top priority and that he had discussed "practical guarantees" with concerned parties.
"Securing the return of our Syrian brothers to their homes and ensuring their security in their country lead our discussions with all the parties," he said in a tweet.
Mr Safadi added that it was the international community's responsibility to push for a political settlement of the crisis.
Many ordinary Syrians who have lived in opposition-held areas for years fear retribution and say that they do not trust the authorities if they return to live again under state authority.
The United Nations has called on Jordan to open its border.
Jordan, which is already hosting about 650,000 Syrian refugees, has thus far refused, citing a combination of security and economic pressures.
The UN's refugee agency says that around 60,000 Syrians have gathered near the border.
The total number of people displaced by the offensive now stands at more than 320,000.