Jerusalem Post, 13/2
A force consisting of Hizballah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Syrian regime soldiers launched an offensive this week south west of Damascus, in the direction of Quneitra province and the Golan Heights. Their aim is to regain territory lost to Syrian rebels and jihadis over the past year, and to establish a strong defensive line before the capital.
In Quneitra and Dera’a provinces, close to the borders with Israel and Jordan, the Syrian war is characterized by significantly different dynamics to elsewhere in this fragmented country. The area is completely closed off to reporters, which may partially explain the absence of media attention. In addition, the Islamic State is not a major factor among the forces opposed to the regime.
In this area, a de facto, undeclared buffer zone has been established by both Israel and Jordan, as part of a broader effort which includes western and regional players. The regime and its allies are currently attempting to claw back ground in this area.
The war in the south is fought between a ‘government’ side which includes a very high presence of Hizballah and Iranian personnel, and a ‘rebel’ side whose components have significant links to neighboring, and western, governments.
The absence of IS does not mean that the southern rebels constitute only the moderate, non-Islamist fighters long sought after by supporters of the Syrian opposition. Rather, they are a mixed bag.
The ‘Southern Front’ led by Bashar al-Zoubi, is the last powerful gathering of non-Islamist fighters on the rebel side in Syria today. Zoubi is a former senior officer of the Syrian Army, who defected to the rebels early in the war.
But the Salafi ‘Islamic Front’, which supports the establishment of a state based on Islamic Shari’a law is also active in these areas, as is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al Qaeda.
The contours of a complex web of support structures for the rebels in the south, involving agencies of a variety of both regional and western governments, may be discerned. The existence of an ‘operations room’ in Amman bringing together representatives of 14 countries to coordinate assistance to the rebels in the south has been reported by a variety of regional media sources. Among the countries represented are the US, France, Jordan, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.
Rebel units within the Southern Front vetted by the US have been the recipients of sophisticated weapons systems, including BGM-71 TOW anti tank missiles.
The southern front has clearly been selected by the west and its local allies as its favored area for the injection of aid and active support for rebels. There are a number of reasons for this.
On the simplest level, the southern area is the only one in which non-jihadi Arab rebel forces have managed to keep themselves in existence. In the early stages of the war, southern Turkey was a focal point for regional efforts to assist the rebels. But in northern Syria today, the significant forces today are Jabhat al-Nusra in the north west, and the Kurdish YPG and the Islamic State further east. Nusra, in the last months, has made significant gains against the remnants of the non-jihadi rebels in Idleb Province.
In the east, there is only the Islamic State. In the western border area, Nusra and IS combine in an effort to take the war into Lebanon. This leaves the south, where tribal and family associations have for a while formed a bulwark against the jihadis.
In addition, however, western, Jordanian and Israeli aid to the rebels in the south derives from urgent necessity. Iran and Hizballah on the one hand, and IS on the other, form looming dangers.
On the regime side, the Assad regime is no longer able to dictate the direction of events. The dictator is in power today in the parts of Syria he controls because of the assistance afforded him by the Iranians and their Hizballah proxies.
This means that the Iranians are seeking to develop the area east of the Golan as a potential springboard for operations against Israel (contrary to the historic practice of the Assad regime, which was to keep that area quiet and apply pressure elsewhere). The killing of the IRGC general and the others on January 18th was a move in the Israeli effort to prevent this.
Islamic State, meanwhile, may have been kept out of the south for the moment, but this is probably only a matter of time. Its potential emergence in this area is an alarming prospect for the Jordanians and also for Israel. So both countries have an immediate and pragmatic interest in developing a de facto buffer zone against both these hostile forces, in the adjoining border areas of southern Syria.
Hence the keen Jordanian interest in supporting the Southern Front – and hence the Israeli effort to build and maintain communication and afford aid and medical treatment to rebel fighters east of the Quneitra Crossing.
The Israeli establishment is divided as to the wisdom of this policy, and as to the preferred extent of it. The concerns relate to the blurred divisions between non-jihadi and jihadi fighters active in the south. Jabhat al Nusra is not an enemy, but rather a comrade in arms both of the Islamic Front and of the Southern Front in the military effort against Assad, the Iranians and Hizballah. It is strong across rural Dera’a and Quneitra and up to the border. For the moment, at least, the main focus is the shared enemy. But this moment will not necessarily last.
These concerns have helped to keep the Israeli engagement with the rebels to modest proportions, focused on the goal of keeping the regime and hence Iran and Hizballah as far away from as much of the border as possible.
These modest proportions are relevant to the broader western campaign of support for the Southern Front. Contrary to some predictions, there is no likelihood any time soon of a rebel push from this area in the direction of Damascus. The rebels do not have the heavy arms and cohesion that would be required to challenge the regime for the capital. In any case, as is now clear, the US Administration which co-ordinates the support has no interest as of now in seeing Assad’s departure.
The offensive now under way may gain some ground for the regime, but it is unlikely to fundamentally alter the picture on the southern front. As of now, Israel has succeeded in creating a de facto buffer zone along most of the border, designed with the modest but significant goal of keeping both the Iranians and the Islamic State at as great a distance as possible. The establishment of this zone reflects Israel’s desire to keep the regional chaos at a safe distance. Careful management of it, however, will be required to prevent it from having the opposite effect.