The Raging—and Surprising—Battle for Southern Syria

The Syrian regime began its assault on the southern city of Daraa toward the end of June, assisted as elsewhere in Syria by Russian warplanes and Iran-supported militias. The attack comes as the regime appears more confident in its battle against the Syrian opposition, which suffered its latest defeat in Eastern Ghouta (next to Damascus), but continues to control Daraa and much of the area along the Syrian-Jordanian border.

The assault, however, comes as a surprise to the opposition and to observers. First, the area is part of the de-escalation zones, according to the 2017 agreement in Astana, Kazakhstan. In fact, Jordan had joined the Astana process as a guarantor state of de-escalation in southern Syria in order to prevent the creation of a refugee crisis that could overwhelm its border with Syria.

Second, the de-escalation agreements resulting from an American-Russian arrangement had the specific purpose of ending all military activities around the zones. They were also an extension of an American commitment to help the Syrian opposition in the south and prevent what is currently taking place. Indeed, this commitment helped to repatriate displaced civilians to their villages and towns.

Third, the assault flies in the face of American pronouncements from the Department of State that warn the Syrian regime against military operations in the south and threaten retaliation if such activities had impact on US-supported units of the Syrian opposition. Fourth, and finally, the Syrian opposition was under the impression that there was a Russian-Israeli agreement against allowing any escalation in the area that would permit the deployment of Iran-supported forces close to the Syrian-Israeli border. In fact, Israel had conducted scores of operations against Iran-supported militias throughout Syria specifically to prevent their deployment close to that border.

However, what may add to the surprising development are some indications of serious changes on the ground related to the Syrian conflict as a whole. The first is that the United States seems to be on its way out, despite previous announcements that American troops would remain in Syria to ensure stability and influence the political transition. This abdication of the American role will result in ceding all authority and influence to Russia and will change regional and international balances in Syria. Importantly, and tragically, the fact that the United States has relinquished its stated function indicates that the Trump Administration has simply opted to abandon the Syrian people and opposition.

A broader, second impact from the operation against Daraa is the obvious and final collapse of the de-escalation zone agreements, and with them the hope for a political solution to the Syrian crisis along the lines of the Geneva process of 2012. By extension, it appears that Russia is triumphant and acting alone, just as it did when the regime attacked Aleppo in 2016 and Eastern Ghouta in 2017.

The third serious change would result from allowing the current assault on Daraa to unfold according to the rules put forth by the regime and Russia; this means that the United States is not going to object to the brutal tactics that the regime has used against Syria’s civilians. It is thus correct to assume that what happened in Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta is likely to be the fate of Daraa and its civilians. Furthermore, it is unlikely that the July 16 summit between US President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin will be an occasion to outline a firm American stand in Syria.

Finally, the loss by the Syrian opposition of its areas of control around the country will mean that it will concentrate on its last bastion in the northwest, specifically Idlib, and defend it against the anticipated assault by the regime and its Russian and Iranian supporters. But this last attack will be the most devastating in terms of loss of human life and physical destruction; indeed, it will be akin to the destruction visited upon Grozny, the Chechen capital that was devastated by Russian forces in 1999-2000. Therefore, the Syrian people may very well be looking at the end of the so-called “political solution,” the Geneva process, and the Astana mechanism for de-escalation zones in Syria.