Enduring Instability Looms in Syria’s Southwest

The situation in southwestern Syria continues to worsen. The Syrian regime launched a military campaign against opposition forces two weeks ago and hundreds of thousands of civilians fled towards the Jordanian borders and Israeli-occupied Golan Heights as a result of intense airstrikes and fierce clashes. Several regime advances have been reported, and there is a growing likelihood more are to occur in the coming days.

The international community—particularly the powers involved in the now one-year-old southwestern ‘de-escalation’ deal—seem to agree on allowing the Assad regime to recapture the southwest, despite prior American rhetoric of retaliation if Assad undertakes such a campaign. Backed heavily by Russia, the Assad regime is determined to reclaim control over the southern front, whether through the means of force or so-called ‘reconciliation’ deals. Given that southern armed opposition forces are largely abandoned by their foreign backers, the Assad regime’s recapture of the southwest is increasingly expected. The recapture is also contingent on whether Israel is persuaded by Russia’s claim of ability to manage such a jittery region. In either respect, however, Assad’s return to the southwest can promise nothing but long-term instability.

Understanding Assad’s Strategy

The Assad regime clearly intends to re-control every part of the country it lost throughout the conflict. With the southwestern ‘de-escalation’ zone no longer holding—following the regime’s victory in Ghouta, which secured the capital’s surroundings—the Assad regime sought to initiate the battle for the southwest, which has been largely under rebel control since 2013. In this campaign, the regime’s ongoing strategy appears to be a combination of employing brutal force and seeking to divide the opposition alliance and communities in the south through cutting separate and localized surrender deals.

Currently, Russia and the regime are focusing their efforts on the east of Daraa governorate, where they have made significant advances since June 12. While they are vowing to resist Assad’s campaign, many opposition groups in the south are tactically retreating and ceding territory in order to consolidate forces in other areas deemed to hold greater strategic value. Southern armed opposition groups can only hold on their territory for so long; their primary source of support, the United States’ CIA-led train and equip program, was cut in July 2017 and they are presently relying on limited and tactical support from Israel. Few opposition-held towns concentrated in the eastern side of Daraa have cut deals of surrender with Russia and the Assad regime; those in Western Daraa are refusing to submit.  

Although the regime has already made significant advances, the key piece of the puzzle that could deter further gains apparently remains unsolved. The main issue of contention for Assad’s return to the southwest is Iranian entrenchment in the region; in the eyes of neighbouring Israel and Jordan, and by extension the United States. There are reports of Russian diplomatic maneuvering to convince Israel and Jordan that they are capable of restraining Iranian presence near the borders. However, it is unclear whether an agreement on this regard has been reached. Assad and Russia’s coordinated military campaign against the south is indicative that some sort of understanding exists among parties involved; including Iranian forces.

While Assad and Russia are cautious to avoid further Israeli involvement in Syria that could lead to risky escalation, they are aware of the limits by which Israel is affected. Israel does not mind regime troops returning to the south, if it is able to address Iranian and Hezbollah entrenchment in what is considered a directly threating proximity. Israel understands that the Trump administration has no interest in either engaging further American troops nor in re-funnelling funds to armed opposition groups in the south. It seems to increasingly favour not engaging further in Syria on its own and—given American ambivalence—instead trusting Moscow for this scenario to play out.

Jeopardizing Stability

Although the Assad regime benefited from freezing the southern front for the past year through the ‘de-escalation’ agreement and thus was able to mobilize troops to focus on other battles, the ceasefire in the southwest benefited the civilian population and brought some level of relative stability to the region with violence markedly decreased. The current campaign against the south in effect announces the collapse of this de-escalatory ceasefire.

Presumably, allowing the Syrian regime to return to the south and negotiating Iranian withdrawal is meant to prevent further escalation between Iran and Israel in such a strategic region, which also was the principal objective of the ‘de-escalation’ agreement. Neither Israel nor other powers involved want to see confrontation between the two countries in southwestern Syria, as such an incident could possibly lead to a wider inter-state conflict. But the return of Assad’s control to the southwest will only contribute to renewed instability.

It cannot be guaranteed that Russia will be able to—or even willing to—discipline Iran and its proxies in this region. Although Iran wants Assad to reassert control in the southwest, it would be quite uncharacteristic of Tehran to withdraw its forces from the region with nothing in return. Nevertheless, Iran has invested in forming local Syrian proxies in southern Syria for some time now, which could be used to challenge Israel in potential Israeli attacks against Iranian assets in other parts of Syria.

Reports suggest that Iranian-backed militias are hiding and integrating with regime army units in the south, while claiming to have withdrawn. Footage of Iranian-controlled groups circulating online show their involvement in the ongoing regime campaign.

Furthermore, it should be understood that Assad troops are no longer only those of the pre-war structure of the Syrian Army. The Assad regime admittedly lacks manpower, and the current formation and structure of its forces implies an inability to sustain control of its territory. As the Assad regime increasingly loses agency over its military, there appears to be no centralized command for all of the regime forces, which today are largely a messy collection of groups with various loyalties.

The regime also carries a demographic disadvantage. Moving towards southern Syria to a largely Sunni populace, where the regime is perceived to be the main force responsible for the killing and the destruction. This will feed into the narrative of extremists and likely surge their recruitment drive among the local population. Present in the Yarmouk Basin since 2016, is an affiliate of the Islamic State (ISIS), Jaysh Khalid bin Al-Waleed (JKW). This group’s fighters are drawn from the local population—unlike ISIS affiliates in other regions—and reportedly hold tribal linkages across the southern region. A recent document by the group suggests that they are already capitalizing on the regime move towards the south by calling on the “apostate” opposition groups to pledge allegiance so JKW can lead a joint fight against the Alawite followers of the regime.

Aside from its tribal nature, Daraa governorate is known as the birthplace of the Syrian uprising in March 2011, and it holds strong symbolism for its role throughout the last seven years. Many regions in Daraa established local governing bodies, administering their day-to-day lives in a relatively democratic fashion. Some level of local resistance to Assad’s return to the south should be expected.  

The Assad regime could likely regain control over the southwest. It would end the presence of the opposition, control the border with Israeli-occupied Golan, and reopen the crossing with Jordan. Stability in this way is not assured, given the complexity of the region, the composition of Assad forces, and the entrenched Iranian troops. The Assad regime is not in a position to secure stability for that region in either the short or long term.

Abdulrahman al-Masri is a journalist and analyst who focuses on Middle East politics and security and foreign policy. He is on Twitter at: @AbdulrhmanMasri.

Image: Photo: Smoke rises from the southeast part of Deraa, Syria in this handout released on June 27, 2018. SANA/Handout via REUTERS