In the middle of the week the forces of Syrian President Bashar Assad completed their takeover of Sheikh Maskin, on the main road from the city of Daraa in southern Syria to the capital Damascus. The ground operation was preceded by a few days of heavy aerial bombings by Russian fighter jets, only about 20 kilometers from Israel’s border with Syria on the Golan Heights. The town itself is apparently no different from hundreds of villages and cities throughout Syria that have been destroyed in the long war, where nearly 300,000 people have been massacred, almost 1.5 percent of Syria’s prewar population.
But victory in the battle has some significance. First of all, it is the first time since Russia brought its aircraft to Syria in August that the Assad regime has taken back an important ground asset. Second, it could make Syria’s two southern neighbors, Jordan and Israel, nervous.
Jordan, which has had to take in hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria because of the war, condemned the actions of the Syrian dictator Assad, and King Abdullah called for him to step down. Later, under American pressure, Jordan joined the coalition against the Islamic State and found itself in direct conflict with it, after ISIS executed a Jordanian pilot it had captured. Meanwhile, according to reports in the international media, a joint American-Jordanian situation room operated in recent years in Jordan to transfer aid to Sunni rebel groups considered more moderate that were working against the Assad regime.
Now Jordan is once again in a dilemma. The Syrian regime might continue to move its forces south toward the border it shares with Jordan and toward Daraa, where the uprising against Assad started in March 2011. Amman is concerned over a mass flight of rebels, including from extremist groups like the Nusra Front, the Syrian branch of Al-Qaida, into the Hashemite kingdom. This week an incident already occurred in which Jordanian soldiers shot and killed rebels who were trying to cross the border southward. A Jordanian decision was also reported to restrict situation room activity so as to reduce friction with Assad.
Israel has other concerns. When Russia began to attack from the air in Syria, it seems that it was focusing on the northern and western parts of the country and leaving eastern Syria to the Americans and their partners in the aerial fight against ISIS. But the Russians are gradually moving south with their planes, and thus getting closer to the border with Israel as well. About two months ago, rebel targets were bombarded in the central Syrian Golan Heights and in at least one case the Israel Defense Forces had to warn a Russian fighter jet that accidently crossed the border into Israeli territory.
Major efforts are now going into maintaining the coordination apparatus between Israel and Russia to prevent misunderstandings that could lead to the downing of a Russian plane, as happened in November on the Turkish border (although there, it seems the move was intentional on Ankara’s part).
The fighting in southern Syria is a secondary front as far as Assad is concerned. He is focusing all his efforts on combat in the north. But if the regime decides, encouraged by Russia and Iran, to turn west from Sheikh Maskin and once more focus a limited assault on the rebels in the Golan Heights, this could upset the relative stability near the border with Israel.
Alongside the red lines that Jerusalem has drawn with regard to the conflict in Syria – preventing firing into Israeli territory and the foiling, attributed to Israel, of an attempt to smuggle advanced weaponry from Syria to Hezbollah in Lebanon – there are other interests that Israel wants to protect: limiting the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the enclave near the border in the northern Golan Heights, preventing any more ISIS fighters from approaching the border (about 600 members of the organization identified with ISIS, the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, in the enclave in the southern Golan) and preventing a massacre of Druze, both in the village of Khader in the northern Syrian Golan and in the Jabal al-Druze region, east of there, deep in Syrian territory.