The Russian delegation handling the cease-fire negotiations in southern Syria came to the city of Sweida two weeks ago to meet with Druze religious leaders and discuss the future of their city and province.
Sweida, which sits on a strategic crossroads connecting southern Syria to both Damascus and the Golan Heights, isn’t a battlefield, since the 400,000-strong Druze minority didn’t take part in the revolt against Syrian President Bashar Assad. The Druze militia acted mainly to defend its territory against attacks, thefts and kidnappings by other militias; it adopted a policy of neutrality that favored neither the Assad regime nor the rebels.
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The Druze have had their disputes with Assad. Three years ago, for instance, he refused to give them heavy weapons to stop attacks on their province and then broke his promise to use Druze fighters only in Druze areas. But these disputes were resolved, and at least in southern Syria, the Druze managed to preserve their neutrality and stay out of the bloody war until last month, when mortar shells were fired at Sweida.
The Russian delegation, as expected, told the Druze that after Daraa and its suburbs are recaptured from the rebels, the Syrian army will take over, including in Sweida. The Russians asked the Druze not to obstruct Assad’s troops, just as they haven’t in the past.
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In exchange, the Druze were promised political partnership in the postwar regime, proportional to their share in the population. Even more importantly, they received a Syrian-Russian promise that they would retain control of their region.
The agreement with the Druze complements a web of agreements with other Syrian minorities, of which the most important is the one now being negotiated between the regime and the Kurds in northern Syria. The state-owned newspaper Al-Watan reported this week that the Kurds have already agreed to transfer the northern oil fields they control to the regime, including in Raqqa. In exchange, the Kurds will receive political status in the postwar regime, Kurdish militiamen will be incorporated into the Syrian army and the Kurdish language will be taught in government schools in Kurdish areas.
The Kurdish leadership denies that negotiations are even taking place, much less that agreements were reached. But other Kurdish sources said the negotiations were almost finished, due mainly to what the Kurds term America’s abandonment of them and to Turkey’s invasion of northern Syria.
A swift agreement with the Kurds is even more important to Russia than an agreement with the Druze, since the Kurds are expected to play an important role in negotiations over Syria’s future. A rebel coalition is also in advanced talks with Russia.
Russian honest broker
With the alliance of minorities evaporating, southern Syria has become the most critical theater for the regime’s goal of regaining control of the entire country. As in other parts of Syria, the regime, aided by Russia, is combining a war of attrition with negotiations.
Daraa’s rebel council, which has drafted the rebels’ demands of Russia, met with Russian officials to explain their conditions for a cease-fire and cooperation with the diplomatic process. But the talks have yet to gain momentum, so on Thursday, Syrian troops and the Russian air force continued attacking rebel targets in southern Syria, especially Daraa.
The paradox in this battle is that the party attacking the rebels – Russia – is also the one the rebels are asking to ensure that their demands are met. The enemy is also a mediator and an ally.
Even after southern Syria is conquered, important pockets will remain, including the Idlib province and the Syrian-Turkish border, where the Kurds control the eastern section and the Turks the west. But a recapturing of the south could mark the beginning of the end of the war.
This region will require especially complex diplomacy by Russia, since controlling it will require satisfying Israel and Jordan, removing pro-Iranian forces and stabilizing a Syrian-Israeli agreement on control of the Quneitra region that won’t violate the 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement.
Unlike Israel, the rebels don’t care about Iran’s presence. They demand that Assad’s forces, with or without Iran, don’t enter rebel-controlled areas but instead suffice with positions they controlled before their southern offensive.
The rebels are willing to hand over their heavy weapons, but only in stages. They want to be able to defend themselves against Syrian army attacks after the agreement is signed, since in both Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, civilians were massacred after rebel fighters withdrew.
This is the main provision currently preventing a cease-fire deal. But given the regime’s massive onslaught on Daraa, the rebels will apparently soon be forced to accept Russia’s dictates.
Another obstacle is the rebels’ demand that any agreement cover both Daraa and Syrian Quneitra – meaning those areas would be in the same de-escalation zone, which Russia would promise to prevent Syrian forces from entering. This demand is of particular interest to Israel, which has said it won’t let Syrian forces into the area demilitarized by the Separation of Forces Agreement, and also to Jordan, which wants pro-Iranian forces to withdraw from its border.
A Jordanian source familiar with the Russian-Jordanian talks said Jordan and Israel are negotiating with both Russia and the rebels and are putting pressure on Moscow. This pressure is designed to turn the rebels into a “defensive shield” against the entry of Syrian and Iranian forces into the border region by getting them to pose this as their own demand.
How many Iranians to remain?
The question is how Russia will respond if these conditions end up thwarting the cease-fire deal it urgently needs to advance the diplomatic process it has led for two years now. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Wednesday that a complete withdrawal of Iranian forces from Syria is “absolutely unrealistic.”
When Lavrov issues a statement like that on the same day he’s holding talks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi, it isn’t aimed solely at Jordan, but mainly at Israel. It also tells Iran that Russia is backtracking on its previous statement that all foreign forces must leave Syria.
Lavrov’s statement was ambiguous enough to be read as saying that while a complete Iranian withdrawal is unrealistic, a partial withdrawal can definitely be discussed. But that wouldn’t satisfy Israel, which has demanded a full Iranian withdrawal and is already working to “prepare” U.S. President Donald Trump for his summit with Russian President Vladimir Putin in another 10 days.
Yet even if agreement is reached on a deep Iranian withdrawal, to 50 or 70 kilometers (43 miles) east of the border, that still leaves the question of Syrian forces entering the Golan Heights. Before the civil war, the Golan was demilitarized, but most of its “residents” were members of the security forces. Today, rebel militiamen live there, which Assad opposes; he might go so far as trying to remove them.
Removing them by force would mean bringing in Syria troops. One alternative is for Israel to persuade the militias, with which it has maintained close contact for years, to leave the area and let UN peacekeepers return to the Golan, where they were stationed before the war began. A third option is for Russia to send a policing force to the Golan, as it plans to do in Daraa and has done in other parts of Syria, to serve as a guarantor of Israel’s security.
The multiple missions Russia is assuming in Syria – including managing local cease-fires, defining and maintaining de-escalation zones, helping the Syrian army conquer the south and negotiating the conflicting interests of Israel, Jordan, Iran and Turkey – mean Israel and Jordan are completely dependent on the Russian superpower. For now, relying on Russia is actually convenient for both of them, but that assumes Russia will remain in Syria long enough to stabilize Syria’s relations with its neighbors.
They also have to consider the options available to them should Russia decide to establish a new Syrian government headed by Assad and then begin withdrawing its forces. This is why the southern Syrian theater has such enormous diplomatic importance. The military and political moves expected there are forcing Israel to try to reach some kind of understanding with the Syrian regime before Assad retakes the Syrian Golan.