The Rebellion at Twilight

Jerusalem Post, 29/6

Deraa offensive marks endgame for the Syrian rebellion – but strife in Syria set to persist

The Syrian regime’s offensive on the rebel held areas of Syria’s Deraa province commenced on June 25th. The Syrian Arab Army’s premier units are among the forces engaged. The Tiger Forces of Colonel Soheil Hassan, and the 4th Armored Division are in Deraa.  So too are fighters from Lebanese Hizballah, in Syrian army uniform, according to a Hizballah associated website.

This offensive is of symbolic as well as practical significance.  Deraa, after all, was where the Syrian rebellion began.  It was demonstrations by schoolchildren in this south west Syrian province, and the Assad regime’s brutal response to them, which set in motion the chain of events that set Syria on the road to civil war.  Now, six years on, and with 500,000 dead in the war, the final battle of the independent Syrian insurgency has begun, in the very same province.

Its outcome is known in advance.  Sources close to the rebels, however, indicate that there will be no mass surrender. They have chosen to fight it out to the end.

The significance is not only symbolic, of course.  The details emerging regarding the campaign have implications for Israel’s hope that Russian good offices can prevent the arrival of Iranian and Iran-associated forces to the border with the Golan Heights.

Deraa had been the subject of a ceasefire agreement brokered by the US, Russia and Jordan last year.   It differs, though, from other areas in Syria currently lying outside of the control of the Assad regime in that there was and is no state clearly prepared to stand behind its continued defense from the regime.

As a result, the regime evidently assessed that despite various US ‘warnings’ against a regime incursion in recent weeks, no serious efforts would be made to prevent or resist an advance in the area.

The US had sought to deter the regime, warning that any attempt to violate the ‘de-escalation’ zone would result in ‘serious repercussions’ and ‘firm and appropriate measures.’

These words did not have the presumably desired effect (of deterring the regime and the Russians).  They did, however, result in widespread hopes among the rebels of Deraa that US intervention on their behalf would take place in the event of a determined regime attempt to re-conquer their enclave.

In order to tamp down this enthusiasm, a further message from Washington to the leaders of rebel groups (leaked to Reuters) advised the insurgents that while “We in the United States government understand the difficult conditions you are facing and still advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to undertake a military measure that violates the zone…you should not base your decisions on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us”.

This was as clear as it gets. Washington did not deny the message.  Despite earlier statements, the southern rebels were on their own.  Their fate was sealed.

In addition to the Deraa/Quneitra area, there are three other parts of Syria outside of regime control, which together constitute roughly 40% of the territory of the country.

These are: the area around the US-maintained base at al-Tanf, in the south of Syria.  This is a desert area, in which the US is cooperating with a small rebel group called Maghawir al-Thawra.

The densely populated area of north west Syria controlled by Islamist rebels and partially under the direct control of Turkey.

The large area east of the Euphrates currently administered by the self-declared, Kurdish-dominated Federation of Northern Syria, with the presence of at least 2000 US troops.

These areas are at present directly guaranteed by the military forces of foreign states – of Turkey in the case of the north west, and the US in the case of the area east of the Euphrates and that surrounding al-Tanf.  Assad is on record as intending to conquer all of them. But the patron-less and hence most vulnerable and exposed Deraa/Quneitra area was the natural next target for the regime’s attentions.

At present, regime forces are massing for an assault on Deraa city itself.  Russian air power is backing Assad’s forces.  With no air power, and precious little anti-aircraft capacity, artillery or heavy armor, the rebel controlled area’s fate appears clear.

So what are the implications of the likely fall and eclipse of the remaining rebel held areas in Deraa and neighboring Suweida provinces?

Firstly, the fall of Deraa and Suweida, and then neighboring Quneitra will mark the end of the rebellion as an independent force.  As noted above, all the other enclaves named above are either controlled by foreign powers who use the rebels effectively as military contractors (al-Tanf, the Turkish controlled north west) or else involve fighters other than the Sunni Arab rebels (the areas east of the Euphrates, where the Kurdish YPG predominates).

As such, the battle currently beginning will conclude with the end of the Sunni Arab rebellion that began in late 2011 with the intention of toppling the Assad regime, and which came close to victory in 2013 and then again in 2015, but which was thwarted by Iranian and then Russian intervention.

This will not, however,  mean the reunification of the country under Assad’s rule. That will depend on the will of Turkey and the US regarding whether they wish to maintain their areas of control, and the role of Russia, whose involvement alone makes regime offensives feasible, but which permitted the Turkish incursions in August 2016 and January 2018, and which is unable to dislodge the US unless it wants to go.

Secondly, given the apparent presence of Hizballah fighters re-badged as SAA personnel in the offensive, the latest events must cast doubt on the ability of Russia to enforce the non-arrival of pro-Iran elements with the advancing SAA as it enters Quneitra, which it surely must.

This means that direct confrontation between Israel and the pro-Iranian element in southern Syria is likely to continue.  On June 18th, tens of members of a pro-Teheran militia, the Iraqi Ktaeb Hizballah, were killed as a result of an air raid on a facility maintained by the group close to the Syria-Iraq border.  US Central Command, which has never attacked the Shia militias, flatly denied any involvement.  Israel was silent.

The apparently imminent final eclipse of the rebels in southern Syria, the evident inability of the Russians to prevent pro-Iranian elements from joining the advancing regime forces, and the possible involvement of Israel in a direct strike on militia personnel indicate that while the Sunni Arab rebellion seems nearly over, strife in Syria looks set to remain.

About jonathanspyer

Jonathan Spyer is a Middle East analyst, author and journalist specializing in the areas of Israel, Syria and broader issues of regional strategy. He is the director of the Middle East Center for Reporting and analysis (MECRA), a research fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for strategy and Security (JISS) and a Fellow at the Middle East Forum.
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