Syrian state media says forces loyal to President Bashar al Assad have taken control of the strategic Tel al-Haara hill that overlooks the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, as they continue their offensive against rebel positions in the southwest of the country. The advance brings the seven-year-old civil war closer to Israel's doorstep, raising concerns of a regional escalation.
Syrian TV showed government forces raising the country's flag over the highest position in the area facing the 1974 demarcation line and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. The Tel al-Haara position, which is 1100 meters above sea level, has been occupied by the Jabhat al Nusra group since 2014. Jordan and Israel's Galilee region are visible from the hill.
TV footage showed government soldiers standing in front of underground bunkers used by Jabhat al Nusra militants. Concrete slabs and broken chunks of cement showed where missiles had hit the structure.
Residents of the nearby towns of al Maal and Tel al Maal chanted to welcome the newly-arrived Syrian military forces.
Government analyst Mohannad Daher claimed the residents of the towns "asked the rebel militia fighters to leave so that they could sign a reconciliation agreement with the government, thereby sparing lives and property.
Residents of the recently-liberated town of al Maal complained that rebel fighters in another nearby village under their control had fired rockets at them overnight, damaging houses and a number of vehicles.
An older woman said she heard shelling and could not sleep overnight since everything was being hit. She said she hopes the ordeal soon will be over.
Hilal Khashan, who teaches political science at the American University of Beirut, told VOA he thinks Syrian government forces were allowed to retake towns and villages near the Golan Heights as part of an agreement between the U.S., Russia and Israel. He said Iran is under pressure from all three countries to reduce its presence in Syria:
"A deal has been struck between the Americans, Russians and Israelis," he said. "And they made it very clear that they are willing to allow the Syrian regime to reach the cease-fire line, provided they not impinge on the 1974 disengagement of troops agreement [brokered by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger]. And the Syrians are keen on not violating it.
Khashan added that the "Israelis are actually praising the Syrians. They said that 'in more than 40 years, they never fired a single shot at us.'"
Israel, nevertheless, has stepped up its airstrikes against pro-Iranian militia forces inside Syria in recent months, including one raid Sunday on the Nairab Airbase, outside Aleppo, which allegedly killed a number of pro-Iranian fighters.
Friction between the Syrian government and Iran also appears to be on the rise, after former Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Velayati told Russian journalists last week Damascus and Baghdad would have fallen to the Islamic state group, if Iran had not intervened. The Syrian government daily al Watan disputed Velayati's claim, in a rare sign of anger at Tehran.