The recent reports in Syria of an alleged Israeli attack against Syrian and Iranian bases only a few dozen kilometers from the Israeli border may suggest a new development in the Israeli strategy, conveying the message that Israel will not allow Iran to militarily deploy in southern Syria. After the announcements of the Russian and Syrian presidents following their meeting in Russia on November 21 that the Syrian civil war had reached its final stages, it seems like Iran is the main beneficiary of this conflict. Part of the arrangement that enabled this is the establishment of de-escalation zones in Syria; the southern zone is adjacent to the Israeli border.
Six months have already passed since Russia established the de-escalation zones in Syria. Now, it is correct that this move sets the conditions for “the final stages” of the war. It should be clear that de-escalation zones do not mean a total cease-fire, though. The frequent fire exchanges in these areas, including alongside the Israeli border, have become less intense but did not completely stop.
In the statement made by Russian President Vladimir Putin on November 21, he praised the de-escalation zones for enabling diplomatic negotiations with the opposition. In reality, the de-escalation zones have improved conditions in those areas under Assad regime control, much more so than for regions controlled by the opposition and other groups. The opposition, on the contrary, has been suffocated in these zones by the regime, making it difficult for it to self-govern. Therefore, and unsurprisingly so, Putin is keen on having the Syrian people decide their fate at this time, when most territory is under Syrian President Bashar Assad’s control and in better shape than those territories not under his control.
So, what are these de-escalation zones?
Determined to dictate the ground rules in Syria, Russia, with Turkish and Iranian support, initiated them at the Astana Convention on May 4, 2017, parting the de-escalation zones into four governances:
1. Idlib, including areas in its neighboring provinces (Lathikia, Hamah, Aleppo)
2. Northern Homs
3. Eastern Ghouta
4. The Syrian south; the provinces of Quneitra and Daraa.
To monitor the de-escalation zones agreement, the agreement included the condition that checkpoints and monitoring centers will be emplaced between the lines of the opposition and the regime, for easing the tensions in each of the four areas. The agreement binds the three countries into placing checkpoints which will allow humanitarian aid to reach both Assad’s regime and opposition-controlled territories. The agreement, which was intended to ease tensions, nonetheless did not include certain groups deemed terrorist affiliates, such as Islamic State (ISIS) and Haia’at Tahrir Al Sham.
These new developments in Syria raise the question of how exactly Putin and Assad are planning to gain control over the areas which are still in the rebels’ hands, considering the fact that it doesn’t seem like the rebels in those areas are willing to give up. To answer this question, we should take a closer look at these areas. We will focus on the de-escalation zone in southern Syria, near the border with Israel and Jordan.
After the announcement of the agreement over the establishment of the de-escalation zone in the Syrian south, inhabitants of the Dar’aa and Quneitra provinces were divided in their opinions over the agreement’s significance on the ground. Some were anticipating an ease in tensions and the return to as normal and as calm a life as possible, while others were concerned over the Iranian involvement in the agreement, as well as worried that this would eventually lead to a separation of the provinces into parted governances.
The Russian troops’ arrival at the Syrian Golan mid-July 2017 was meant to implement the agreement, as clashes between the opposition and the regime during May and July were recorded on several fronts and two short cease-fire agreements were emplaced during July. The Russians placed forces at several checkpoints to demonstrate that they were capable of easing the tensions in the region, which had its pros and cons.
ON THE educational level, for example, people in the rebel areas of Daraa province used the ease in tensions to open this school year with the highest attendance recorded in years. Due to the de-escalation zones and the decline of airstrikes in the province, it was termed by the people of Dar’aa “temporary stability,” which they strive to utilize for providing their kids with the best available education and school frameworks despite the damage to infrastructure and economic challenges.
Furthermore, the implementation of the agreement in the Syrian south has ensured the return of dozens of families to their villages in the Quneitra province.
On the economic spectrum, the regions under the regime’s control are undergoing a period of economic improvement. The agricultural lands in these regions are ready for farming and harvest. Moreover, the return of active transit on the national highway between the city of Daraa and Damascus – whereas before it was closed at nights – has provided an economic boost to the regime’s “south.”
Yet, unlike the regime’s “southern province,” the rebels’ “southern province” is very unstable. This is due to the lack of economic stability the Syrian opposition suffers from and their inability to increase revenues since all roads are supervised by Russian and Iranian forces.
The Russians pledged to supervise and ease the transfer of humanitarian aid to territories in the de-escalation zones, yet villages such as Oum Batina, located east of Quneitra across from the regime’s forces, have not received any aid despite the locals pleading for assistance; locals claim 80% of the village is utterly destroyed.
This openly exposes the Russian interest in inflicting pressure on the population in areas controlled by the rebels, and actually suffocating them, forcing them to surrender with minimum use of military force.
The Russian entrance into the Syrian south has ensured the deployment of Iranian and Hezbollah forces in the region. The Russian army settled in two key military bases in the Syrian south, one of which is located only 12 km. from the border with Israel.
Since Iran has signed the de-escalation zones agreement, it has used its role to supervise the agreement in the south and has positioned its forces together with its affiliated Hezbollah militia across the region.
Iran has used its role in the de-escalation zone agreement to establish a military base in Keswa, south of Damascus, and a military recruitment center in Daraa named “Squad 313,” located approximately 30 km. from the Golan Heights.
As the Syrian regime and its allies (Russia, Hezbollah and Iran) control most Syrian territory, the Russians have built their path into dictating “the final stages” of the diplomatic negotiations between Assad and the opposition. As for Israel, the Russians already made it clear earlier in August 2017 that an Israeli attack in the Syrian region will not be tolerated.
Just a few weeks later, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov proclaimed that Iran will not have to pull out of Syria, and that the Iranian presence in Syria is legitimate. It would be interesting to see whether Hezbollah is considered by the Russians as “Iranian,” since in past drafts, Russia demanded that Hezbollah pull out of Syria.
Nonetheless, it is still not in the Russian interest to provoke Israel into military intervention in Syria. Only time will tell whether the Russians succeed in maintaining this status quo on the border, but Israel remains concerned by Iran and Hezbollah gaining footholds in the Syrian south.
The Israeli strategy in the past few years was sufficiently successful to keep Israel out of the civil war in Syria, and yet conducive for forging positive relations with the people on the other side of the border, by supplying them with humanitarian aid. This strategy also included some operations in Syria against Hezbollah. The new situation in southern Syria, while the Russians and the Iranians are deployed only a few kilometers from the border, makes it increasingly challenging for Israel to defend its red lines and make sure that Hezbollah and Iran are not turning this region into another southern Lebanon, where huge amounts of ready-tofire rockets and artillery are stashed inside Lebanese homes, posing a significant threat to Israel.
In this respect, during these “final stages” US involvement and its impactful influence will be most crucial for the maintenance of Israel’s security. From its side, Israel will have to adapt its current strategy and come up with creative ways to benefit from the Russian presence, rather than clashing with it.
IDF Lt.-Col. (Res.) Sarit Zehavi is the founder and CEO of ALMA, a research and education center focusing on Israel’s security challenges on its northern borders.
Ibrahim Abu Ahmad is a researcher with ALMA