With the Syrian army in control of Damascus and its environs under control, it set eyes on Southern Syria, where the rebels control parts of Quneitra, Daraa and Sweida, including areas along the border with Jordan and Israel. Meanwhile Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem made it clear that the government will attempt to pursue a diplomatic resolution with the rebels before military decides to launch offensive. The Syrian government has also asked the American troops to withdraw from al-Tanf, a de-escalation line in the South-Central part of Syria, a strategic border crossing highway with Iraq which is also home to U.S aligned rebel base.
Following the warnings, the Syrian army dropped leaflets on southwestern Syria, asking civilians to expel the rebels who are controlling most of Daraa and partly Quneitra province. The Syrian Observatory Human Rights stated that the leaflets were accompanied by scattered government airstrikes and artillery blasts around Daraa province. In response, the rebels threatened the regime of “volcanoes of fire”, if they move into the region. At the same time, the US also warned the government to stay out of de-escalation zone, an agreement signed by U.S, Russia and Jordan last year to freeze the lines of conflict there.
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov told reporters that only the Syrian military personnel will launch an offensive in Southern Syria to pacify the US, which has threatened to retaliate against the regime if they violate the de-escalation zone. Here, Russia is also attempting to calm Israeli fears about Iranian and Hezbollah establishing a permanent military presence in southwest Syria. On the other hand, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, Ali Shamkhani, supports Russian idea to have only regular Syrian military forces involved in any operation in the southwest, as this would reduce the chances of Israeli intervention. However, in politics and war, leaders changing their position to appropriate their self-interest is commonplace across the world. The Russia and Hezbollah eventually got involved in the southwest offensive, while the U.S reportedly told its allied rebels groups that they should not base their decision on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by them.
The escalating tension in southwestern Syria has made the Jordanian government concerned. While Jordan would like to see the reopening of its border crossing with Syria to facilitate commercial traffic, it also wants a peaceful resolution to avoid the new influx of refugees and an Israeli intervention in Syria. This nightmare of Jordan came true when Assad’s forces begun its offensive to regain its control over southwestern Syria. Thousands of Syrians reportedly fled towards the Golan with the hope of getting protection from Israelis. Most of them however were turned away by Israeli border guards. While about 60,000 headed to the camps near the Jordanian border to escape from the bombardments in Quneitra and Daraa Province. In fact, the international community urged Jordan to open its border for the Syrian refugees, but Amman has limited itself to providing humanitarian assistance to the camps.
The U.S abandonment and the combination of mostly Russia-Hezbollah airstrikes along with the Syrian forces compelled the rebels in Daraa province to sign the evacuation truce. The rebels have agreed to relocate to Idlib province that Russia-Syrian government have been offering to the rebels lately. Here, once again Russia played a major role in negotiating the agreement with the rebels who also agreed to guarantee the return of estimated 320,000 people from Daraa province and monitor the forces that will be stationed in Daraa to keep the peace. But the agreement could not persist for a longer period as the rebels started accusing the Syrian force of breaching the ceasefire. According to the rebels, the Syrian aircraft struck their targets in a village named Umm al-Mayadin near the Jordanian border, causing the death of four people. It seems that the rebels in the village refused to surrender their weapons citing unspecified violations of the ceasefire by both Russian and Syrian force, leading to the resumption of fighting in Daraa province. However, within a week the Syrian force seized the rebel-held parts of Daraa province, symbolically flying their national flag in the middle of town in commemoration.
For Assad, the most important outcome of the fighting in Daraa has been the recovery of the strategic Nassib border crossing with Jordan, which is apparently being repaired. The reopening of the border will boost the Syrian economy as it is one of the major trading routes to the south. Moreover, winning Daraa is also a tactical achievement for Assad as it is the birthplace of the Syrian Arab Spring that began in 2011 and it was the suppression of this movement by the Syrian force that gave rise to the ongoing civil war in the region.
While there may be some mopping up to be done in Daraa province, the Syrian army has begun the second phase of its offensive by continuing their advance into Quneitra province, which borders Golan Heights, thus a concern for Israel. But it seems that Israel is prepared as they have beefed up their defence mechanism and have moved military assets into the Golan in anticipation of offensive. Israeli’s have also begun their periodic airstrikes while warning Syria of “harsh response” if they enter anywhere near to the UN established demilitarized zone in Quneitra province. The UN established the buffer zone in 1974, following the Yom Kippur War, and has maintained it ever since on continually renewed six-month terms.
Yet, it seems that Assad is very keen on regaining his territory by whatever means, notwithstanding the Israeli or US retaliation. The Syrian offensive in Quneitra proceeded rapidly and intensively, resulting in capturing al-Haara hill, a strategic panorama that overlooks Israeli border. Prior to the uprising, it used to be the location of Syrian radar installation to track anything coming across the border from Israel. Simultaneously, the Syrian force also continued its offensive to deadly effect in Ain al-Tineh of Quneitra and Nawa village of Daraa province. As a result, the rebels in Quneitra provinces agreed to surrender and relocate to Idlib. This puts Syria’s border with Israel to Assad’s control without provoking any substantial escalation with Israel. Likewise, rebels in the city of Nawa surrendered with the exception of some scattered fighting with holdouts who refuse to accept the surrender agreements.
The rebels who wish to remain in these provinces will be allowed but they have to bear the pressure of getting enrolled into the Syrian army. And those who have refused to stop fighting but have agreed to leave the province will have to give up their heavy weapons and would be taken to Idlib province where they will face the brunt of either the rival rebels or the Syrian military and its allies. Interestingly, there is a slice of territory in the southeast of the Golan that is controlled by the Khalid ibn-al- Walid army, an ISIS-affiliated group were not given the offer to surrender or evacuate but to face the offensive.
The US, on the other side, realized that Assad is not going to stop and will unleash his wrath over the rebels who are controlling his land at present. This led them to evacuate their members of the Syrian Civil Defense group also known as the “White Helmets” from southwestern Syrian to neighbouring countries like Jordan and eventually to Europe and possibly Canada. Israel, a close strategic partner of US in Syria, is also helping American troops by facilitating the evacuation of hundreds of members of White Helmets and their families to Jordan.
At present, both Russia and Syria have intensified their air campaigns against the remaining rebels who are holding a strip of territory along Syria’s southwestern border with Israel and Jordan. So far the rebels are being able to fend off the ground attack by the pro-government forces. But they may not be able to sustain for a prolonged period because of the belligerent nature and aggressive offensive by Syria and Russia.
After seven years of war, Assad though seems to emerge as victorious with Kurds in northeast willing to negotiate with the Syrian government, Turkey is still claiming Idlib province. Therefore, the probability of a direct confrontation between Assad and Erdogan cannot be entirely ruled out. In fact, Assad has already stated that he is prepared to use force to regain control of Idlib and northeast if necessary. At present, more than US and rebels, it is Turkey which is entrenched in northern Syria and is attempting to build infrastructure and institution in the parts they have occupied, an unwelcomed development for Assad government.
On the other hand, Turkey has already set up ten observer post in the province, manned and equipped by Turkish soldier and equipment and they could become defensive opposing Syrian offensive on the province. In Turkish perspective, any attempt by Syria to regain Idlib province will be considered as a hostile act which needs retaliation. While there is an impending conflict which may unravel in days to come, it would also be interesting to see how Russia and Iran manage to maintain its neutral position given their strategic relationship with Turkey. Will Iran and Russia stick to Assad’s side against Turkey or Putin will once again try to act as a lead negotiator to convince Erdogan to return Idlib to its original owner is something which will keep the world jazzed-up. However, one thing is still clear, Assad will win either ways and soon Idlib will be under the control of Syrian government.
*Nagapushpa Devendra is a researcher in Institute of Defense Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.