The map of southern Syria has started to become clearer after an agreement between countries that have a stake in the area’s future. The agreement was made, with Russia taking the lead — which supports the Syrian regime — and Israel, despite the complications and entanglements of the region and its inclusion within the “de-escalation” agreement made between Russia, America and Jordan in July 2017.
The scenario which is being discussed in the corridors of Israeli-Russian policy is that Assad’s forces return to take control of the Jordanian and Israeli borders in exchange for curbing Iran’s role and for expelling its forces and militias from the border before removing it from Syria entirely.
After Assad’s forces took control of the last positions of the Islamic State (ISIS), south of Damascus in May, there was talk about Assad’s forces heading toward Daraa province to take control of it — especially following Russian statements that the end of the de-escalation agreement would be inevitable in light of the continuing presence of the ISIS and the Nusra Front.
Ahead of Assad mobilizing, Israel began to discuss an arrangement with the Russians regarding the region, as neither the Syrian regime nor Moscow want Israel on the battlefield. Diplomatic movements and communications began, and through discussions between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Vladimir Putin, over the phone, and a meeting between Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman with his Russian counterpart Sergei Shoygu in Moscow on May 31, 2018, they were able to reach a preliminary agreement with Moscow.
Russia confirmed through its permanent representative to the United Nations, Vasily Nebenzya, that an agreement had been reached for Iranian forces to withdraw from the south, with the expectation that it will be implemented in the coming days.
Russia also gave the green light for Israel to carry out limited military actions in Syria if its security is endangered, on the condition that this does not affect the Syrian regime’s capabilities or targets its positions. Additionally, options were discussed about redeploying UN separation forces on the border area, and the option of deploying Russian police forces on the Syrian side.
The Opposition and Iran Are the “Losers”
The price of the agreement will be at the expense of the Syrian opposition. A newspaper quoted an Israeli military source as saying that the Israeli defense minister had promised Russia that they will not intervene in the battle.
The battle will include three areas, which Abou Hozaifa al-Shami, a military commander in Hayyat Tahrir al-Sham in the south, predicted in a previous interview with Enab Baladi. These are the Nasib Border Crossing, which the regime has been trying to take control of for years; Tel al-Hara, which is one of the tallest hills in the northern Daraa countryside and overlooks broad parts of the Daraa and Quneitra countrysides; and the town of Basr al-Harir in the eastern Daraa countryside, which is one of the targets described as “hidden and not understood by many rebel groups”, which Assad’s forces could exploit to open a real or fake battle with the aim of occupying the other areas.
The Al-Sharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that Russia told Tel Aviv that “some of the rebel groups will defect to the Syrian army in this area and have asked Israel not to obstruct this process” while also asking it not to respond to the shells which might slip into Israel, as “the Syrian regime does not want a war with you [the Israelis] and if a shell falls on your side of the border, this is by accident.”
For its part, the regime is keeping silent and refraining from media comments about the agreement between Russia and Israel. In an interview with Russia Today on May 31, 2018, President Assad only spoke of fighting terrorism and using force against terrorist groups.
Foreign Minister Walid Muallem has combined the starting of talks with the withdrawal of American forces from the al-Tanf area near the Jordanian-Iraqi border.
The Syrian regime has not made any statement politically, but has mobilized military units on the ground, with the Palestinian Quds Brigade commander, Mohamed al-Saeed, surveying a number of areas in the Quneitra province and at the border with Israel, according to what a source told Enab Baladi, adding that Saeed was touring all the fronts in the province of Quneitra and the border with Israel, including the city of Quneitra, Medinat al-Baath, and Khan Arnabah in preparation to receive them.
Over the last few days, forces from the Fourth Division have arrived to Quneitra province to take part in the expected military operations, commanded by Colonel Ghiath Dallah, head of the so-called “Ghiath Forces” which includes officers and fighters from Assad’s forces in the 42nd Armored Brigade of the Fourth Division.
The Iranian response came in two parts — the first on the ground through the withdrawal of a large portion of forces and fighters from the Lebanese Hezbollah group that were deployed in the south, according to a source, and secondly a timid political response that did not meet the scale of the agreement against them.
It was content to make a statement through the secretary-general of the Iranian High National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, who told the Iranian Shargh newspaper on Jun. 2, 2018, that Iran would support efforts led by Russia to impose Syrian government control over southern Syria amid reports indicating that Damascus is preparing a major military attack in the area.
Regarding the reasons for Iran’s agreement to the deal and its lack of participation in the battle, the American strategic site Stratfor attributed this to Iran’s desire to maintain its relations with Russia and its dependence on them in the coming period, especially after the United States withdrew from the nuclear deal, in addition to the fact that its participation in the battle could expose them to the risk of greater pressure by America, which has declared its displeasure at the violation of the “de-escalation” zone, alongside its desire for the regime to regain control over the south.
This article was translated and edited by The Syrian Observer. Responsibility for the information and views set out in this article lies entirely with the author.