The US-Russian agreement of July 2017 that led to a fragile stability in southwestern Syria has recently unraveled, testing President Joe Biden’s approach in Syria as Russia continues its policy of supporting and extending President Bashar al-Assad’s control. The latest developments in Daraa—the birthplace of demonstrations against the Syrian regime in 2011—coincided with renewed cooperation between Washington and Moscow to restrain Iranian influence in Syria. They are also creating a new status quo in the southwest of the country and may ultimately shape regional dynamics in the Levant.
The Latest Daraa Siege and Cease-fire
On July 29, the Syrian regime, with reported help from Iran-backed militias, launched a ground operation in the Daraa al-Balad, the old neighborhood in the city of Daraa, located in the southwest of the country. This was preceded by a siege that had begun on June 25. The Assad government has been demanding that the district rebels surrender light weapons, allow regime forces to search houses, and hand over some of the resident fighters. Despite government domination of southern Syria since the summer of 2018, the Syrian armed opposition groups had kept control over some areas, including the old neighborhood of Daraa. A first truce between the government and opposition fighters was reached on September 1, but it was violated by the Syrian regime. A second truce and cease-fire were negotiated by Russia on September 5, which were followed by the lifting of the siege on September 8.
This is not the first time the Syrian regime sought to seize full control of Daraa. In February/March 2015, the regime’s military, with support from Iran-backed militias, launched an offensive that made some limited territorial gains in southwestern Syria. The objective then was to reclaim the buffer zone on Syria’s border with Israel and Lebanon, secure Damascus from potential attacks, and cut off the armed opposition’s supply route via Jordan. This first offensive was primarily led by Iran-friendly forces with the strategic aim of potentially opening a new front against Israel in southern Syria; but the Syrian regime failed to accomplish these objectives and the offensive was ultimately halted.
Jordan and other Arab states, as well as Israel, had concerns then, and continue to do so now, about the growing Iranian influence in this area. A Jordanian official said in April 2015: “We cannot allow Iran to come to our backyard. They have entertained too many ideas lately with Soleimani calling the shots and made everyone feel we were beginning to see the rise of an Iranian empire”—in reference to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard’s Quds Force Commander Qassem Soleimani, who was killed in a US drone attack in Baghdad in January 2020. During that same April, the Syrian armed opposition took control over the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, adding another setback to the Syrian regime. After the Russian intervention in September 2015 changed the dynamics of the Syrian conflict in favor of the regime, the United States and Russia reached a cease-fire agreement in September 2016 in southwestern Syria that held only for a few days. It was ultimately renegotiated in July 2017 by establishing de-escalation zones. The second Syrian regime offensive in June/July 2018 targeted the eastern part of Daraa governorate, which was one of the de-escalation zones established.
While the Syrian army made important inroads in this cease-fire agreement, once again it was unable to assume full and sole control over Daraa.
The current cease-fire agreement, reached on September 8 under Russian auspices, was between the Central Committee in Daraa, which represents the city, and the Security Committee that represents the regime. It stipulates that the Syrian regime remove the siege on Daraa in return for allowing an additional four Syrian regime checkpoints inside the city and collecting surrendered weapons. Beyond initiating an immediate cease-fire, the agreement stipulated deploying Russian military police in Daraa, opening a center to settle the status of those wanted by the Syrian regime, releasing those detained by it and clarifying the fate of those missing, and restoring public services in the city. More importantly, dozens of those who kept their weapons in the old neighborhood of Daraa were evacuated with their families to northern Syria. While the Syrian army made important inroads in this cease-fire agreement, once again it was unable to assume full and sole control over Daraa.
Two regional powers, Jordan and Israel, are playing a key role in US and Russian policies in Syria. Moscow and Amman share a renewed urgency to activate the Nasib border crossing between Syria and Jordan. Jordan’s King Abdullah II traveled to Washington and met with President Biden on July 19 then followed that with a trip to Moscow on August 23 to meet President Vladimir Putin. Abdullah told CNN during his visit to Washington that “Bashar Assad has legitimacy, and so the regime is there and we have to be mature in our thinking. Is it regime change or behavioral change? And if it’s behavioral change then what do we have to do to come together to talk to the regime, because everyone else is doing it and there is no plan at the moment.”
In return for normalizing relations with Damascus, Jordanian authorities expect from the Syrian regime to secure the Amman-Damascus highway to resume cross-border trade activities that help improve the economic situation in Jordan and to limit the Iranian influence in southwestern Syria. On July 27, Jordan’s Interior Minister Mazen al-Faraya spoke over the phone with his Syrian counterpart, Muhammad Khaled al-Rahmoun, about the need to fully activate the Nasib border crossing, which is also known as the Jaber crossing on the Jordanian side. On September 19, Syrian Defense Minister Ali Abdullah Ayoub met in Amman with Jordan’s chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces, Major General Yousef Huneiti. This is the third high level trip of a Syrian regime official to Amman. The Syrian oil and electricity ministers, Bassam Tomeh and Ghassan al-Zamel, met on June 231 with the Jordanian Minister of Energy and Mineral Resources Hala Zawati to discuss the Arab Gas Pipeline; this was followed by a visit on September 8 to Amman by Tomeh and his counterparts from Egypt and Lebanon to meet with Zawati.
It is not clear yet if the United States will help Russia to persuade Israel to curb its strikes in Syria, which will largely depend on the progress of US-Russian talks on Syria.
Another factor that could complicate the rapprochement between Washington and Moscow is Israel. In preparation for the meeting between Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in early October, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid visited Moscow on September 9 and met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov. Moscow is seeking to curb Israel’s strikes against Iranian assets in Syria. Lapid said in remarks during this visit that “Israel will not sit by quietly while Iran builds terror bases on our northern border [with Syria and Lebanon], or while Iran supplies advanced weapons to terror organizations – weapons intended to be used against us.” Prior to that, Bennett met with Biden at the White House on August 27 and Israeli media quoted a senior Israeli official as saying that Bennett intended to ask Biden not to withdraw US forces from Iraq and Syria, following the US withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is not clear yet if the United States will help Russia to persuade Israel to curb its strikes in Syria, which will largely depend on the progress of US-Russian talks on Syria.
As during the Syrian regime offensive on Daraa in 2018, the United States did not actively seek to deter the latest attack on the town beyond issuing public statements and engaging Russia. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called for the end of violence in a tweet on August 4, which was followed by another tweet from the “US embassy Syria” account condemning the violation of the September 1 cease-fire agreement. In a press briefing on September 9, US State Department spokesperson Ned Price endorsed the Russian sponsored cease-fire agreement in Daraa and urged “all parties to uphold the ceasefire agreement to end this violence.”
The statement reflected the progress on the US-Russian talks regarding Syria, which gained momentum after the June 16 Biden-Putin summit in Geneva. This was followed by talks between US National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, Brett McGurk, and Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin along with Presidential Envoy Alexander Lavrentiev. On July 9, the talks resulted in a breakthrough that kept the Bab al-Hawa border crossing between Turkey and Syria open, in a unanimous decision by the UN Security Council (Resolution 2585). The United States showed flexibility in its talks with Russia and toward the Jordanian initiative on Syria before publicly endorsing the plan to transfer Egyptian gas via Syria to Lebanon, which coincided with these evolving developments in southwestern Syria.
Russia did not immediately intervene and used the Syrian regime’s blockade of Daraa as leverage. Mutual concessions between Washington and Moscow continued, with Russia showing renewed flexibility on the Syrian constitutional committee that will soon resume its meetings after nine months of deadlock. Moscow seems intent on pressuring Assad to make concessions while simultaneously pushing to get armed opposition groups out of Daraa and Idlib. In an announced visit, Assad visited Moscow on September 13 for that purpose, as Putin told him that the presence of foreign forces “undermines your ability to use your best efforts to consolidate the country and promote recovery at a pace that would have been possible if the legitimate government controlled the entire country.”
Now that Daraa is relatively under control, Putin has shifted focus back to Idlib. In the first week of September, Russian warplanes launched2 at least 46 air strikes targeting the countryside of Latakia, Hama, and Idlib, most notably targets linked to Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham, formerly al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra. This led to the renewal of Russian tensions with Turkey as these areas are included in the Idlib cease-fire agreement reached in March 2020. Lavrov said that this agreement “is far from being completed, there is a lot to be done,” referring to the Russian expectation from Turkey “that normal, sane opposition should be separated from terrorists, namely the Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham group.” Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar responded that “we comply with the agreements we have reached with Russia on Idlib, we are aware of our responsibility, and we expect the same from our allies.” Moreover, on September 11, northwestern Idlib witnessed an attack on Turkish troops that killed two soldiers, which prompted Ankara to send reinforcements. The United States is not getting involved in these latest Russian-Turkish tensions but, in a drone attack on September 21, targeted a senior al-Qaeda leader in northwestern Idlib; this reinforces Moscow’s position that the priority is to target radical groups. Given Biden’s complicated relationship with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, US interests in Syria might be closer to those of Russia than Turkey in the foreseeable future.
The decision to secure the Amman-Damascus trade route and the Arab Gas Pipeline allowed the Syrian regime—with Russian support—to extend control over Daraa and its old neighborhood in return for limiting Iranian influence in southwestern Syria.
The decision to secure the Amman-Damascus trade route and the Arab Gas Pipeline allowed the Syrian regime—with Russian support—to extend control over Daraa and its old neighborhood in return for limiting Iranian influence in southwestern Syria. The impression in this process was that Iran wanted to launch a ground offensive to take over Daraa, and Russia stepped in to offer mediation; however, the ultimate objective of this offensive by both Moscow and Tehran was accomplished by bringing the Syrian regime one additional step forward to seize full control of southwestern Syria. Russia did not participate in actively bombing the city, hence it left the door open to play the mediation role it is claiming. However, this latest cease-fire agreement reinforces the conflict of interest between Russia and Iran in southwestern Syria, which is expected to continue. What happened recently in Daraa continued a trend of US-Russian understandings with Jordan since 2017, one in which the Syrian regime gradually increases its hold in southwestern Syria. If the Syrian armed opposition is no longer in Daraa to deter Iran and its friendly militias (as was initially intended), Russia will be expected to play a larger role in the area to assure the United States, Jordan, and Israel that Iran will not fill the vacuum.