By: Patrick Hoover, Columnist
Photo by: Reuters
Southwestern Syria may be the next focal point of local and regional tension in the seven-year-running civil war. While other fronts have been more active, regime and rebel forces have remained stalemated in the area for nearly four years. Nevertheless, an anticipated Syrian regime offensive is exerting pressure on Jordan to withdraw support for rebels in order to limit refugee flows and on Israel to undertake more aggressive steps to protect the Golan Heights. Jordanian and Israeli concerns place even greater responsibility on US policymakers to provide the leadership necessary for regional deconfliction.
The Syrian government launched a spate of airstrikes on March 12 across rebel-held eastern Dara’a Province, the first operations in the area since the U.S. and Russia agreed in July 2017 to make parts of Dara’a and Quneitra Provinces one of four ‘de-escalation zones’ in Syria. Tens of thousands of civilians have already fled their homes under the supervision of the Southern Front (SF), an umbrella of US-vetted rebel factions that control nearly 60% of Dara’a Province. [i] For over four years, the SF received support from the Jordan-based Military Operations Center (MOC), a US-funded project to train and equip rebels against the Syrian government. Ever since the US halted MOC funding last July, SF forces have exhibited a lack of direction and fallen to infighting.[ii] While the frontline remains volatile, at present SF has only engaged in minor skirmishes with regime forces, which hold most of the provincial capital, Dara’a City, and the highway to Damascus. Government forces have, however, already mobilized in the adjacent al-Suwayda Province, likely in a preparation to clear rebels in Dara’a City and seize the border. Additionally, an ISIS affiliate—Jaysh Khalid bin al-Walid (JKBW)—controls a small pocket in southwestern Dara’a, adding a further wrinkle to both SF and regime calculations as well as those of Syria’s southern neighbors, Jordan and Israel.
Since 2011, the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan has maintained a policy of non-intervention, supporting rebels via the MOC while at the same time preserving diplomatic ties with Damascus. The SF provides the kingdom a buffer against JKBW, while open channels with Damascus and Moscow allow Jordan to monitor the movement of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and its proxies. Above all else, Jordan desires stability in southern Syria. Renewed conflict and displacement of Syrian refugees across the border would pose a national security risk to Jordan, which already hosts over 660,000 refugees and struggles with a high unemployment rate and domestic radicalization.[iii] Following several ISIS attacks against Jordanian forces—including a suicide attack in the Rukban refugee camp on the border—the kingdom sealed its border with Syria in June 2016.[iv]
Jordan would like to see the Assad regime resume control on the Syrian side of the border. The kingdom has attempted, and—so far—failed to persuade the SF to transfer control of the Nassib border crossing—located four kilometers south of Dara’a City—to the regime. Prior to 2011, Nassib served as a multibillion-dollar transit hub between Turkey and the Gulf.[v] Jordan has offered the SF a share of that trade revenue in exchange for ceding control of Nassib; however, the fragmented SF has failed to deliver a united response. If an SF-regime fight were to erupt in the coming months, Jordan will have to reassess the status quo, balancing its support of SF against its desire to restore regional stability.
Israel has also remained cautious in the Syrian conflict apart from occasionally bombing Syrian and Iranian forces. In late 2017, Israel began taking a more aggressive posture, striking targets deeper inside Syria, including weapons storage units and convoys transporting supplies to Hezbollah in Lebanon. Following the US decision to halt MOC funding, Israel has increased military support to rebel groups such as Fursan al-Golan.[vi] While these groups benefit from the sponsorship of a credible, external state-actor, Israel gains allies against an entrenched pro-Iranian force on its border. These partners are particularly valuable to Israel in the ‘triangle of death,’ a region connecting Dara’a and Quneitra Provinces from where Hezbollah and other IRGC proxies can launch attacks into Israel.
In response to the Assad regime’s provocations in the south of Syria, Israel requested that the United Nations Disengagement Observer Force redeploy peacekeepers along the ceasefire line in the Golan Heights.[vii] Though the request was denied, the Israeli Defense Forces conducted a multi-front exercise in the event Russia intervened to prevent Israel from attacking Syria and Hezbollah.[viii] Russia promised Israel that it would prevent the presence of IRGC-backed forces within five to seven kilometers from the Golan Heights, but emphasized that this arrangement was only temporary. [ix] Fearing that Russia will not be able or willing to restrain its allies, Israel will likely retaliate on an unprecedented scale if the IRGC participates in the expected offensive.
Implications for US Interests
Following the March regime airstrikes, the U.S. called an emergency meeting in Amman to urge restraint on all sides to protect the July 2017 ceasefire.[x] The collapse of the ceasefire would draw Israel further into hostilities, potentially overwhelm Jordan, and threaten the security of the US base in al-Tanf—an isolated outpost over 200 kilometers east of Dara’a. An enlarged US military footprint in southern Syria is unlikely given the difficulties of traversing the vast Syrian desert from al-Tanf and acquiring Jordanian cooperation. Instead, the U.S. should be clear-headed about its role in southern Syria before deciding which diplomatic and political levers it will pull to coordinate with Israel, Jordan, and even Russia in order to prevent another crisis like East Ghouta and to seal up a gaping security vacuum ISIS elements could easily fill.
[i] “Threats Herald an Anticipated Battle in Southern Syria,” Enabbalai, March 26, 2018, https://english.enabbaladi.net/archives/2018/03/threats-herald-an-anticipated-battle-in-southern-syria-2/.
[ii] John Walcott, “Trump Ends CIA Arms Support for Anti-Assad Syria Rebels: U.S. Officials,” Reuters, July 19, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-usa-syria/trump-ends-cia-arms-support-for-anti-assad-syria-rebels-u-s-officials-idUSKBN1A42KC.
[iii] United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees, “Syria Regional Refugee Response,” Operational Portal: Refugee Situations, March 13, 2018, data.unhcr.org/syrianrefugees/country.php?id=107.
[iv] Rana F. Sweis, “Jordan Closes Border to Syrian Refugees After Suicide Car Bomb Kills 6,” New York Times, June 21, 2016, https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/22/world/middleeast/jordan-syria-attack.html.
[v] Suleiman Al-Khalidi, “Syrian Rebels Resist Jordan Pressure to Hand Over Border Crossing,” Reuters, October 5, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-jordan/syrian-rebels-resist-jordan-pressure-to-hand-over-border-crossing-idUSKBN1CA116.
[vi] Rory Jones, “Israel Gives Secret Aid to Syrian Rebels,” Wall Street Journal, June 18, 2017, https://www.wsj.com/articles/israel-gives-secret-aid-to-syrian-rebels-1497813430; Nawa, Ahrar, “’الحر’ يستهدف مواقع لـ’جيش خالد’ في حوض اليرموك بدرعا,” [The FSA Targets Jaysh Khalid Positions in the al-Yarmouk Basin in Dara’a], YouTube video, 1:16, posted January 15, 2018, www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sxnj5uPIRZ0.
[vii] Joe Macaron, “Jordan, Israel Hedge Their Bets in Southwest Syria,” Al-Monitor, March 22, 2018, https://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2018/03/us-cedes-southwest-syria-jordan-israel-hedge-bets.html.
[viii] Yaniv Kubovich, “Israeli Military Drill Simulates Multi-front War – With Russia Intervening Over Syria,” Haaretz, March 15, 2018, https://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/idf-simulates-multi-front-war-in-which-russia-intervenes-over-syria-1.5910678.
[ix] Dan Williams, “Israel Signals Free Hand in Syria as U.S., Russia Expand Truce,” Reuters, November 12, 2017, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-israel/israel-signals-free-hand-in-syria-as-u-s-russia-expand-truce-idUSKBN1DC0HY.
[x] Eric Walsh and Lisa Lambert, “U.S. Calls Urgent Meeting in Jordan after Syria Strikes Reports,” Reuters, March 12, 2018, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-mideast-crisis-syria-meeting/u-s-calls-urgent-meeting-in-jordan-after-syria-strikes-reports-idUSKCN1GO2LS.