Last week regime helicopters reportedly attacked agricultural areas northeast of Daraa and rained barrel bombs on the rebels. There have also been ground battles, as the regime is trying to drive a wedge between two areas under rebel control.
On Monday, the second air strike of the week ascribed to Israel took place, this time near the Damascus airport. An opposition group said it targeted arms being unloaded from an Iranian plane that had landed shortly before.
Moscow wants an agreement under which some of the rebels would voluntarily evacuate parts of the south and be replaced by Assad’s forces. (Assad would also commit to removing Iranian troops and Shi’ite militias from those areas.) It also wants America to abandon the Al-Tanf base near the Iraqi border, which the Trump administration has so far refused to do.
The latest military moves in southern Syria can thus be seen more as warm-up acts and declarations of intent than as a large-scale military offensive.
Israel, meanwhile, has its own interests: thwarting arms smuggling to Hezbollah and continuing to act against Iran’s military presence in Syria.
Last weekend, Reuters reported that Washington had told rebels in southern Syria not to count on its assistance if the regime attacked them. The other big question is how Israel would react in such a case.
Israel wants stability on its border. It has also frequently denounced the Assad regime for slaughtering its own citizens and using chemical weapons. But would it necessarily oppose the Syrian Army’s return to its border in the Golan Heights, if the Iranians were removed from the area at the same time?
In recent years, Israel has given food, clothing and medicine to residents of Sunni Syrian villages near its border. Thousands of Syrians have also entered Israel for medical treatment. Western media reports say Israel has also given rebel militias in those areas arms and ammunition as well. Israel denies this, but recently those denials have sounded less forceful than in the past.
Along with fighting the rebels, the Assad regime has mercilessly slaughtered residents of towns under their control. In many cases, it battered besieged towns with air strikes and artillery until they surrendered.
Thus Israel’s leadership will soon face a dilemma. In internal discussions, some defense officials, including officers in the army’s Northern Command, have said Israel has a humanitarian obligation to residents of these border villages.
Nevertheless, it’s hard to imagine that the public would support risking Israeli soldiers’ lives to save Arab citizens of an enemy country. It’s more likely that Israel won’t intervene directly in the fighting, but will try to make the regime’s return to the border region contingent on an agreement to remove Iranian forces and the Shi’ite militias from it.
There’s also another problem, which relates to the Druze. Throughout more than seven years of war, the Syrian Druze have largely managed to stay out of the conflict, though in some areas they cooperated with the regime.
The city of Sweida, in the heart of the Jabal Druze region, is near the area from which the regime plans to launch its assault on Daraa. Some 50,000 Druze residents in the region have evaded the Syrian draft and are considered deserters, but so far the regime has chosen not to confront them.
But last week, Israeli Druze say, two Russian generals came to Sweida and demanded that local leaders provide tens of thousands of Druze soldiers for the regime’s offensive. The generals threatened that if they refuse, the regime will consider Sweida a hostile area and treat its residents as terrorists. The Druze fear that Assad seeks to give this final stage of the conflict religious overtones by setting the Druze against their Sunni neighbors.
The tension in Jabal Druze also affects the Druze in the Syrian Golan. The Druze village of Khader, in the northern Golan, is very close to the front line between the regime and the rebels. It has maintained contact with the regime for years and sometimes even directly confronted Sunni militias opposing Assad.
Last November, as Israel turned a blind eye, Sunni militiamen neared Khader. Their goal was to oust regime soldiers from a neighboring area, but somehow mortar shells also fell in Khader itself.
Israeli Druze raised an outcry, fearing their brothers over the border would be slaughtered. “When that gang tells you they’re stopping for a five-minute coffee break near Khader, there’s a good chance it’ll end like Sabra and Chatila,” one source said, referring to the Beirut refugee camps where Lebanese Christian militias massacred Palestinian civilians in 1982.
Israel woke up quickly. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned off the rebels, and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman ordered the Israel Defense Forces to move tanks closer to the border.
Then, the rebels were deterred. But now, the Druze in Khader may once again be caught up in the battle between the regime and the rebels, should large-scale fighting resume in this area.