A cease-fire went into effect on Sunday in southern Syria along the border with Israel and Jordan that covers the provinces of Deraa, Quneitra and Suweida.
US National Security Advisor H.R. McMaster provided the usual boilerplate reasons behind American support for the move, saying the United States is committed to “helping to end the conflict in Syria,” and that this agreement would be an “important step toward common goals.”The deal is unique in that it was signed by the US, Jordan and Russia and came amidst G20 talks in Hamburg. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov described the cease-fire as relating to the “de-escalation zones” that had been agreed to in Astana in May.The cease-fire in southwest Syria shows that Russia and the US are capable of working together in Syria – at least for the moment. After the Astana talks in May, Syria rejected US monitoring of the four “de-escalation zones” around Idlib, Homs, East Ghouta in Damascus and southern Syria.Hamidreza Azizi, an assistant professor at Shahid Beheshti University in Iran, wrote in the Middle East journal Al-Monitor on May 24 that Iran supported the de-escalation zones to enhance its prestige because doing so would bring Tehran and Moscow closer together. Turkey’s Syrian rebel allies were outraged at Iran’s participation in Astana.Today we see the fruits of that outrage in this separate deal. It also represents the US “buying in” to southern Syria, where the US already has interests at its base in al-Tanf and in supporting Israel’s concerns in the Golan. The US won’t work with Iran, but it can work with Moscow.Jordan has emerged as a key US ally in all of this. The king of Jordan was in Washington for his third visit with Trump administration officials, according to reports, in the last days of June. In March, Abdullah II told Trump that Jordan wanted an end to the conflict in Syria, according to a White House statement on the meeting. The June visit came as fighting flared along the Golan Heights border with Syria. On July 6, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly phoned Trump in Europe to discuss ramifications of the cease-fire. This comes amidst Israel’s warnings against Iran’s and Hezbollah’s role in Lebanon and Syria.Israel can’t be a signatory on the cease-fire memorandum, for obvious reasons, since countries involved with the Syrian civil war would reject official Israeli involvement, and Israel doesn’t want to be officially involved. But Jordan and Israel’s security interests in southern Jordan dovetail, and Jordan was a key player in this deal.“We’ll continue working with US and Russia to ensure success of cease-fire deal in south Syria and final de-escalation area plan,” tweeted Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi on July 7. The goal is a comprehensive cease-fire “and political solution accepted by Syrians that safeguards integrity, independence and sovereignty of Syria,” he wrote.So who wins and loses in the latest cease-fire? Jordan is the big winner. The kingdom has forged a unique bond with Trump’s administration, which listens to Amman. It was an observer at the Astana talks on July 4-5, but appears to have been working the whole time on a separate cease-fire for the south with the US and Putin.For Jordan, the situation in southern Syria is key to security. It wants the million Syrian refugees who have fled to return to their homes – only peace and cease-fires can achieve that.The Syrian rebels of the Southern Front also seem to be winners. They distrust Iran’s role at Astana, and Jordan is their lifeline for humanitarian aid and other supplies. Also, Jordan and the US likely want to eradicate an ISIS pocket bordering the southern Golan. Air strikes there last month killed two ISIS leaders.The US is a winner if the cease-fire works because it shows that US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and Trump can accomplish something on the ground. Putin and Trump have a complex relationship because of accusations of Russian meddling in the US elections. Any kind of official success they can have at achieving peace in Syria might change the conversation and show Trump’s Putin relationship to bear positive fruit. For Israel, this is a test of who guarantees the cease-fire and whether there is an opening to move Iran away from the Russia-Syria access. Weakening Iran’s role in Syria, and therefore Hezbollah’s role, would make Jerusalem less concerned. It could also cause Hezbollah to lash out to sink the cease-fire.Turkey is also making noises about the Kurds in northern Syria, which could cause a crisis. The US and Russia have invested in this cease-fire; if it works, it could prove Tillerson’s July 8 comment about “other areas where we can work together” prescient. That would mean the Syrian civil war is turning a new corner. But six years teaches us not to be so hopeful.
US, Russia, Jordan reach ceasefire deal for southwest Syria (credit: REUTERS)