A force consisting of Hezbollah fighters, Iranian Revolutionary Guards and Syrian regime soldiers launched an offensive this week southwest 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 Deraa provinces, close to the borders with Israel and Jordan, the Syrian war is characterized by significantly different dynamics in comparison 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, Islamic State is not a major factor among the anti-regime forces.
In this area, a de facto, undeclared buffer zone has been established by both Jerusalem and Amman, as part of a broader effort which includes Western and regional players. The regime and its allies are 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 Hezbollah and Iranian personnel; and a “rebel” side, whose components have significant links to neighboring – and Western – governments.
The absence of Islamic State does not mean 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 – a former senior officer in the Syrian army who defected to the rebels early in the war – is the last powerful gathering of non-Islamist fighters on the rebel side in Syria today.
But the Salafi “Islamic Front,” which supports the establishment of a state based on Shari’a, is also active in these areas – as is Jabhat al-Nusra, the Syrian franchise of al-Qaida.
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 southern rebels 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 antitank missiles.
The Southern Front has clearly been selected by the West and its local allies as its favored agent for the injection of aid and active support for rebels, and there are a number of reasons for this.
On the simplest level, the southern area is the only one in which non-jihadist 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; yet in northern Syria today, the significant forces today are Jabhat al-Nusra in the northwest, and the Kurdish YPG and Islamic State further east. Nusra, in the last months, has made significant gains against the remnants of the non-jihadist rebels in Idlib province.
In the east, there is only Islamic State; in the western border area, Nusra and Islamic State 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 jihadists.
In addition, however, Western, Jordanian and Israeli aid to the rebels in the south derives from urgent necessity – as Iran and Hezbollah on the one hand, and Islamic State on the other, form looming dangers.
On the regime side, Syrian President Bashar Assad is no longer able to dictate the direction of events; the dictator is in power today in parts of Syria because of the assistance afforded him by the Iranians and their Hezbollah proxies.
This means the Iranians are seeking to develop the area east of the Golan Heights as a 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 Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps general and others on January 18 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. Thus, 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-jihadist and jihadist fighters active in the south.
Jabhat al-Nusra is not an enemy, rather a comrade in arms of both the Islamic Front and the Southern Front in the military effort against Assad, the Iranians and Hezbollah; it is strong across rural Deraa 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 calculations have helped keep Israeli engagement with the rebels to modest proportions, focused on the goal of keeping the regime and hence Iran and Hezbollah 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 required to challenge the regime for the capital.
In any case, as is now clear, the US administration – which coordinates 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 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.