Syria’s South: Buffer or bargaining chip?

When it announced the suspension of funds to the SF last year, the Trump White House was merely calling truth to the previous fiction of a US military strategy to unseat Assad.

February 4, 2018 22:44
3 minute read.
Syria’s South: Buffer or bargaining chip?

REBEL FIGHTERS head toward their positions in Syria’s Quneitra province, bordering the Golan Heights, in June. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

Syria’s southern Quneitra and Daraa governorates are quiet. Even with daily incursions into the de-escalation zones of Eastern Ghouta (near Damascus) and northern Idlib by the Assad regime and its allies, a fragile calm holds in the south. This despite the Islamic State (ISIS) franchisee Khalid Ibn Al Walid Army’s occupation of turf along the Jordanian border and Golan Heights; the US suspension of funds to Free Syrian Army remnant the Southern Front (SF); and the recent thrust by Damascus in al-Sanamayn, just outside the southern de-escalation zone, to test the remaining offensive capabilities of the SF, as well as the limits of international support for the status quo.

The question among both observers and the southern de-escalation zone’s 800,000 or so inhabitants is how long the calm will last. But what a difference three years makes. In late 2014-early 2015, with the “moderate” armed opposition losing ground elsewhere in the country, there was optimism that the south – “Syria’s Last Best Hope” (The National Interest) – could provide a turning point in the conflict.

To their most ardent supporters – or perhaps most desperate – the opposition’s estimated 30,000-man SF was at the time, according to Foreign Policy: “the type of partner that the international community seeks in Syria – credible and militarily capable enough to hold contested territory, while willing to countenance a future Syria that is secular, nationalist, inclusive, and respects minority rights.”

Armed with logistical and material support from the West and Gulf benefactors, the SF was soon pressuring regime lines along the country’s main southern artery leading to the capital. Damascus, in the view of hopeful Assad opponents, was in sight.

What came next, however, was not unforeseen.

As the Financial Times accurately predicted in June 2015, “without more backing, the Southern Front 35,000-strong force cannot maintain its strength against the combined threats of Mr. Assad, ISIS and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.”

Internal conflicts – many of them personality based as opposed to ideological – played a role in the force’s undoing, with the commanders of the 50-odd groups comprising the SF each compelled separately to compete for the favor of patrons. So did the entry of Russia into the conflict later in 2015. But a significant factor in the reversal of southern fortunes was that which the Trump administration came to recognize with regard to the existing US strategy: that there was no strategy.

When it announced the suspension of funds to the SF last year, the Trump White House was merely calling truth to the previous fiction of a US military strategy to unseat Assad. Even if the objective had been to maintain the SF and its territorial gains as leverage for diplomatic bargaining later, by the time of Trump’s inauguration in January 2017 the situation in the south had stalemated.

From a staging point for a threatened opposition assault on Damascus, the south had morphed into a buffer zone between Syria’s southern neighbors and the southward creep of an array of regionally destabilizing forces including elements of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and Lebanese stepchild Hezbollah. The SF or its component parts had become the zone’s de facto police force. With their salaries now cut, what happens next is not clear; rarely has it proven healthy for a country to have heavily armed men loitering about.

For the near term, the final round of SF payroll should afford local commanders a degree of unit discipline and loyalty, and stockpiled weaponry should give their adversaries temporary pause. But the time will come when the West’s resolve in the south will be tested as much as it is today in Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, where as many as 200 civilians have been killed since the beginning of the year including, reportedly, with chlorine gas. When it is, more than just the credibility of the de-escalation agreement, not to mention the UN-backed diplomatic process, will be at stake.

Since the de-escalation agreement in the south last year, a modicum of stability has returned to the area, benefiting residents and neighbors alike. The tide of refugees flooding across the southern border has ebbed, humanitarian inflows have increased thus staving off further crisis, communities have organized to fill the governance vacuum, and voluntary refugee repatriations have even been reported. These are not insignificant achievements but ones that require ongoing investment and, if necessary, protection. Like the SF, the question is whether anyone is willing to continue shouldering the costs and for how long absent a viable, nation-wide endgame in Syria.

The author is a regional project management consultant who previously served as a senior adviser in the US State Department’s Middle East Partnership Initiative.

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