Syria Breaks De-Escalation Agreement

Is this the crucial moment for the U.S. to act?

The Assad regime is determined to capture the last few enclaves held by rebels.  One such target of the regime is the Daraa-Qunietra provinces of southwestern Syria.   Approximately 60,000 Syrian government troops who will likely include Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), Hezbollah fighters, and a host of Shiite militiamen from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, all under Tehran’s control, are poised to move closer to the Israeli border on the Golan Heights.  Approximately 30,000 rebel forces are expected to move closer to the Israeli border with the hope that Israel would provide them with cover.  Should the Syrian regime move toward the Golan, Israel will more than likely be compelled to engage the Syrian regime forces, if it included Iranian IRGC officers, and elements of Hezbollah fighters, whether in their uniforms or covered with Syrian army fatigues.  Five Syrian army divisions have traditionally been posted in the area bordering Jordan and Israel.  Their strength has been depleted as a result of casualties, defections, and a collapse of recruitment.  Iranian IRGC, Hezbollah, and Shiite militiamen are almost certain to fill the Syrian ranks. This may very well develop into more than a localized conflict, and may spread into an unknown direction.

Daraa and Quneitra fall under the “de-escalation zone” agreed upon by Russia, the U.S. and Jordan in July, 2017.  Yet, according to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights last week, the Assad regime helicopters dropped barrel bombs on the opposition-held areas of Daraa city for the first time in a year.  The Assad regime, backed by Russian aircrafts, have been targeting the rebel-held enclave for a while now.  The Daraa-Quneitra provinces in southwestern Syria borders Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights, making it a strategic and most contentious area. It is also the area where the intifada against the Assad regime began in March, 2011.  The Assad regime has eliminated the rebel held enclave of Eastern Ghouta in the northern Damascus countryside, with barrel bombs and poison gas, in spite of the area having been part of the de-escalation (Zone 3) agreement signed by Russia, Iran, and Turkey at Astana, Kazakhstan. This has provided the Assad regime with the confidence to move against the next target, being southern de-escalation area of Daraa and Quneitra.

According to Reuters (June 26, 2018), U.S. State Department officials told its reporters, “We are concerned by developments in southwestern Syria, particularly the intensification of Russian airstrikes and pro-regime ground attacks.  This is once again an example of Russia violating arrangements it has entered into with no regard for civilian lives.”  While the State Department condemned the Russian involvement, the U.S. administration has also informed the rebels in southern Syria who are being attacked, not to count on U.S. assistance.  This leaves the burden on Israel.

Israel’s overriding principle is to have stability and peace along its Golan border.  As such, it will not oppose the Assad regime forces return to their former positions next to Israel’s Golan Heights, provided that Assad can guarantee that Iranian and Hezbollah forces will not come along with them.  According to a Reuters report (June 8, 2018), Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah declared in a televised address, “I will tell you that if the whole world comes together to force us to leave Syria, they will not be able to evict us.”  He added that only the Syrian leadership could ask them to leave.

In recent years Israel has often denounced the Assad regime for slaughtering its own citizens and using chemical weapons in the process.  Israel has also provided food, medicine, and clothing to Sunni and Druze Syrian villagers near its border.  Moreover, thousands of Syrians, including rebel fighters, have entered Israel for medical treatment.  There are also reports in the Western media that Israel has provided rebel Sunni militias arms and ammunition.  Israel has denied these allegations.  Some Israeli officials have indeed argued that helping rebel forces to capture and control southern Syria would create a wide buffer zone between Israel and the Iran-sponsored forces.  Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reluctance to be drawn into the Syrian quagmire shelved that idea.  PM Netanyahu made it clear however, to Bashar Assad, that if he continues to allow the Iranians to establish military bases across Syria, Israel would be compelled to change its current policy of non-interference in the Syrian civil war.  Simultaneously, Israel will continue to target Iranian bases in Syria, as well as Iranian shipments to Hezbollah via Syrian territory.

Israel’s concern is not with the Assad regime but with its Iranian allies. On his own, Bashar Assad and his regime have been seriously weakened by the 7-year civil war in Syria.  Iran, Hezbollah, and the Shiite militias operated by the IRGC are however a serious if not an existential threat to Israel.  Ehud Yaari, a Fellow with the Washington Institute, wrote, “Iran’s IRGC is determined to transform Syria into a platform for a future war with Israel, whereas leaders of the Jewish state have sworn to prevent what they often describe as the tightening of a noose around Israel’s neck.” Yaari added, “Since both the U.S. and Russia prefer to avert an Israel-Iran clash and its associated risks, expanded understandings over the south (Southern Syria-JP) could contain a prohibition on entry to the area of non-Syrian forces, such as Hezbollah, thus diminishing the danger of an eruption along the border.  Curtailing IRGC acquisition of a network of bases in Syria also requires that Assad and his mentors be thwarted from capturing the area east of the Euphrates River – roughly a quarter of Syria’s territory currently held by the U.S. sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), aided by the presence of 2,000 U.S. soldiers.”

On June 27, 2018, The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that “After intense and violent shelling, the (Assad) regime forces and their allies, with the support of Russian warplanes, gained control of a town and a village in the eastern countryside of Daraa, and continue their aerial bombardment by helicopters and warplanes on Daraa City.” 

Iranian participation in the assault on Daraa will force Israel to halt that advance with its air force.  This will compel the Iranians and Syrians to retaliate, increasing the chance for a major flare up.  Non-intervention by Israel would position Iranians over hilltops easily targeting the Golan with short-range missiles and mortars.  Additionally, Iran and its proxies participation in the capture of Daraa (on the Jordanian border) may threaten the Hashemite monarchy, and may serve as a casus belli for Israel.  The actual Russian role in the current assault also complicates Israel’s response.

The Trump Administration has vowed to remove the Iranian presence in Syria.  This would be a perfect time for the U.S. to act firmly against the Syrian regime, should it employ IRGC forces and its proxies. Considering that the Assad regime and its allies broke the de-escalation agreement, and especially since it threatens its allies Israel and Jordan, the U.S. involvement is indispensable.