(photo credit: JONATHAN SPYER)
The ceasefire negotiated by the US, Russia, Jordan and reportedly Israel covering southern Syria is the latest, but not last ceasefire agreements negotiated by the foreign backers and warring parties in the Syrian civil war. Similarly to previous ceasefires, this deal does not include a mechanism to punish the Assad regime or its allied foreign militias if they violate the deal, and hence, this deal too, is likely to fail.
Southern Syria has been a relatively quiet front of the Syrian civil war since 2015, comparatively to northern Syria and the towns abutting Damascus. This stems from the preference of the foreign backers of the rebels, and in particular the Jordanian regime, which through the secret Military Operations Command (MOC) Room in Amman oversees the supply of salaries and weapons to Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions.
In southern Syria, FSA fighters make up a majority among the rebels. Since mid-2015, Jordan and the MOC room directed the rebels to cease offensive operations against the regime due to the desires to prevent new refugee flows from Syria (each offensive leads to mass displacement of civilians), avoid antagonizing Russia after it intervened in Syria in September 2015, and the loss of trust in the FSA. Those who refused the MOC’s orders risked having their salaries cut.
Instead, the MOC pushed the rebels to confront Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid, the local Islamic State (ISIS) affiliate, which controls the western Daraa countryside. Previous rebel offensives not only failed to dislodge the group, but in February 2017, the small ISIS affiliate managed to capture several towns from the rebels.
Civilians and rebels in southern Syria tell me that the failure to achieve progress against ISIS stems from corruption within the ranks of the rebels, who at times choose to collaborate with ISIS in exchange for money, and the lack of enthusiasm to fight what many rebels see as fellow Muslims. Another reason for the failure is the need to maintain alertness and occasionally fight regime forces while battling ISIS. The Assad regime has repeatedly bombed rebels fighting ISIS in Daraa. Therefore, the foreign backers of the rebels will likely seek to utilize the newly announced ceasefire for another offensive against Jaysh Khalid.
US, Russia, Jordan reach ceasefire deal for southwest Syria (credit: REUTERS)
While the rebels will likely launch another offensive against ISIS, the regime will probably exploit the ceasefire in southern Syria to move much-needed troops to other fronts. The Assad regime has suffered an acute manpower shortage from the early stages of the civil war, and has exploited local ceasefires to shift troops to other fronts. Currently, the regime is concentrating its efforts on eastern Ghouta, a besieged enclave east of Damascus, which is supposed to be covered by the de-escalation zones deal. In addition, the regime is racing to capture as much territory as possible from ISIS in eastern Syria, as the organization’s territorial control shrinks rapidly in Iraq and Syria.
This ceasefire, like previous ones in Syria, is unlikely to hold. The Assad regime will not be punished for violating the deal and in the long run, they will not accept rebel control over any part of Syria, and in particular, Quneitra. The regime and its allies Iran and Hezbollah see strategic and symbolic importance in controlling areas along the border fence on the Golan. Hezbollah, Iran and Assad have lost a great deal of legitimacy and popularity that they once enjoyed among Sunni Arab communities due to their brutal suppression of the Syrian population. The fastest way to start reclaiming this popularity is to regain control of Quneitra and begin harassing Israel.
Elizabeth Tsurkov is a Research Fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking.