The Battle for Deraa and Iran’s Plans in the South

On February 12, 2017, the opposition operations center known as al-Bunyan al-Marsous announced the beginning of the battle for the regime-controlled district of Manshiya, dubbed al-Mawt wa-la al-Madhalla. The operation hoped to push the regime away from the border crossing with Jordan following a series of regime attempts to advance in that direction. The Manshiya district is the only remaining regime-controlled section of “Deraa al-Balad” (the southern half of Deraa city), where the Syrian popular uprising first erupted on March 18, 2011. 

In Deraa, the opposition controls “Deraa al-Balad” and Deraa Camp (which was mostly inhabited by Palestinians and IDPs from the Golan Heights), while the regime is concentrated in “Deraa al-Mahatta,” the city’s modern commercial center connected to the capital via the M-5 Highway. Deraa is considered the cradle of the revolution, the Free Syrian Army (FSA), and anti-Regime sentiment. An analysis of recent battles sheds light on the tactics of the two warring parties as well as Iran’s strategy in the south and Syria as a whole.

Al-Bunyan al-Marsous is predominantly made up of local fighters from the city of Deraa who fall under the umbrella of the FSA, as well as local fighters from Islamist factions and those from rural Deraa. Over time, it has become the model for organized and successful military operations for the rest of the formations in the province, while also breaking the deadlock of factional rivalries and military stagnation that had been looming in the south.

Al-Mawt wa-la al-Madhalla went through several phases during the four months leading up to the latest campaign. It managed to advance into and control almost all of the al-Manshiya district during months of fierce urban combat through the extensive use of underground tunnels, remote controlled VBIEDs, and locally manufactured surface-to-surface rockets. It prevented the regime, supported by Russian air cover, from recapturing the areas it lost as the various regime units were unable to withstand the attacks of Deraa rebels.

In early June, Iran and Russia, exploiting the calm of Syria’s northern fronts that had provided them with a greater number of fighters, arrived on the frontlines with a plan to invade the city, reach the border crossing with Jordan, and separate the eastern countryside of Deraa from the west. Iran sent huge numbers of multiethnic Shia militiamen to the battlefront, led by Lebanese Hezbollah, while the regime deployed special storm troopers from the 4th Division, a battle-hardened outfit from their time in Zabadani and Daraya, led by Colonel Ghayath Dallah. Russian and regime warplanes also began to intensify their aerial bombardment of the city’s neighborhoods with various weapons types, including napalm, barrel bombs, and artillery, using the same scorched earth tactics that were used in the besieged districts of east Aleppo before the departure of opposition forces.

Due to the concentration of al-Bunyan al-Marsous forces on the al-Manshiya front, as well as its fortification, the Iranian military campaign has tried to penetrate opposition held areas via Deraa Camp’s flank. Iran launched several attacks in which a number of 4th Division and Hezbollah commanders were killed, as well as a number of FSA commanders. Yet the campaign failed to shift the balance of power due to tribal and regional cohesion within the formations of the south and the fact that many former Syrian army military officers now lead the opposition.

On June 17, a 48-hour ceasefire started under a US-Russian-Jordanian agreement, which was then extended 24 hours. After this period, the regime campaign, with heavy Russian air support, returned even more violently. The fact that the renewed attack came right after the United States down a regime warplane near al-Tabqa gave the impression that this was the Russians taking revenge and annulling the ceasefire agreement. In a surprise move, regime forces seized the aerial defense brigade base near the road that connects east and west Deraa Countryside. However, al-Bunyan al-Marsus quickly retrieved it, inflicting significant losses on the regime, and has managed to maintain control as of the writing of this article.

Even though Deraa is included in the May 2017 agreement establishing de-escalation zones, and despite official Arab and US focus on curbing Iranian influence in Syria, neither has prevented the joint Russian-Iranian campaign against the city of Deraa. The campaign aims to see Iranian-backed militias reach the Jordanian border, just as they reached the Syrian-Iraqi border from both sides by way of the Syrian Desert. Having already imposed their control over the western Qalamoun along the Lebanese border after a long series of battles and forced-displacement agreements, Iran is looking to make a similar strategic move to block the idea of safe zones proposed by the Trump administration, secure a supply route stretching from Tehran to Syria’s south, and curtail American plans in Syria.

As for Deraa, which was also discussed in the context of safe zones, Tehran aims to impose its presence there as a fait accompli to Jordanian and US plans (if any exist) in Syria. Iran considers this an opportunity to isolate Deraa, gradually take control of the most important and symbolic remaining FSA stronghold, restore Assad’s legitimacy, and get closer to the Golan Heights.

As for Jordan, the arrival of Shia militias on the battlefront and the extent of bombing has raised many fears, from a security, economic, and political perspective. With an eye on Iran, Amman has already rejected the presence of sectarian militias on its borders. Jordan is also afraid of a large wave of displacement in its direction. That fear has already driven Jordan to increase support for the Deraa rebels, which has not produced any qualitative shift in policy, and to push for a ceasefire agreement and a stop to the military campaign on Deraa. Instead, it has eliminated the possibility of its own ground intervention along the lines of Euphrates Shield in the north, without alleviating fears of a possible Iranian advance towards its borders. It has also eliminated the possibility of any alternatives that might include accepting Assad’s presence at the Deraa or Nasib border crossings in exchange for keeping Iran at bay – a decision that would cost Jordan allies, as well as its only sphere of influence in southern Syria should.

The battle of Deraa poses the most dangerous threat to the continuity of the political process, in Geneva and Astana, due to the opposition forces’ perception that these processes are useless, and that agreements with Russia cannot be trusted. It also threatens the opposition’s future chances in the south. Since Astana I, rebels have witnessed the loss and evacuation of many areas in Damascus and Homs countrysides, continued attempts to break into Eastern Ghouta, and now the great battle for Deraa. All of these have been carried out with Russian and Iranian complicity, coupled with the latest expansion in the Syrian Desert and attempts to block any contact between FSA forces and ISIS in order to monopolize “the fight against terrorism” and prevent opposition forces from advancing towards Deir Ez-Zour. 

The the political and military revolutionary forces feel they are losing at every turn of these processes in the face of the continued expansion of Iranian plans and the absence of any definitive or serious American or Arab strategy to confront them. And while the de-escalation agreement has neutralized military forces in the north pending the completion of this undertaking in the south, popular pressure is mounting. Rebel forces will soon face a threat to their legitimacy should they continue the political process while also retreating on the battlefield.

The results of the current battle for Deraa will be a turning point in the course of the Syrian question and the regional map, where Iran aims, largely through Hezbollah, to impose its presence as a fait accompli via a triangle of control and supply routes stretching between the Iraqi, Lebanese, and Jordanian borders. Iran, along with Russia and the Assad regime, also aims to take control of the most important strongholds of the Free Syrian Army, with Deraa being the first and most symbolic among them. By doing so, it believes it will be able to impose its vision for a solution in Syria in favor of the regime, put an end to any plans for safe zones, and curtail American influence.

Meanwhile, the rebels of Deraa believe they are facing a threat to their existence due to the symbolic nature of their city and the nature of the local community that so profoundly rejects the regime and Iranian presence, raising fears of massacres in the event Shia militias and regime forces enter Deraa. Being this important, the battle can change the opposition’s options. With the right kind of international support, the battle can also bring about their acceptance of the political process and convince them that their regional and international allies are serious. However, the continued expansion of and regime and its allies’ forces on the ground, though, threaten the opposition’s belief that any of its backers are serious in their support. 

Ahmad Abazeid is a Syrian writer and researcher focusing on the Syrian uprising and armed groups. He has written for Al Jazeera Center for Studies, Siyasat Arabiya, The New Arab, Omran Center for Strategic Studies, and Forum for Arab and International Relations.

Image: Photo: A man stands amid damaged buildings in a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria June 21, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir