Analysis

Israel Hopes Assad Will Regain Control of Southern Syria Without Further Bloodshed

The balance of forces between the sides in the Syrian conflict gives an advantage to the regime, and continual fighting will only incur great losses to the fighters, opposition groups and residents

TOPSHOT - Smoke rises above rebel-held areas of the province of Daraa during reported airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on July 8, 2018.
Syrian army soldiers burned a rebel flag Saturday after they and Russian military police took over the crucial Nassib post on the border with Jordan. After launching a devastating offensive in Syria's southern region of Daraa on June 19, the forces of Damascus and Moscow were finally in charge of one of their main strategic targets -- the frontier crossing with Jordan. / AFP PHOTO / Mohamad ABAZEED    !!!שימוש לשבוע בלבד מיום קבלת התמונה !!!!
AFP

The Syrian army’s recapture of southern Syria is progressing at a faster pace than expected. Over the weekend, agreements were reportedly reached between President Bashar Assad and rebel groups in Daraa that would ensure a quick surrender of the city. Perhaps more importantly, Syrian soldiers have recaptured Naseeb, the main Syrian border crossing with Jordan.

The reason for what appears to be the impending surrender of the rebels in Daraa, the cradle of the seven-year revolt against Assad, is clear. The balance of forces between the sides gives an advantage to the regime, and any insistence to keep on fighting will only incur great losses to the fighters, opposition groups and residents.

> Next Stop for Assad: The Golan Heights

In the last year and a half, pockets of rebels across Syria have surrendered in a similar way. Russian officers at the “reconciliation center” at Russia’s Hmeimim air base in northern Syria have mediated agreements for villages and cities to give up heavy weapons and swear their loyalty to the regime. This is what is also expected to happen in Daraa, now that the Syrian army and allied militias have taken more and more villages near the city in recent days. 

For Assad this is a great victory. Only three years ago the regime was on the verge of collapse and barely held onto a quarter of the country. Now, thanks to the dispatch of two Russian fighter squadrons in September 2015 and Shi’ite fighters whom Iran put at Assad’s disposal, the result has completely been turned around. On the way, the regime and its helpers massacred hundreds of thousands of innocent Syrian civilians.

The rebels still hold a wide swath in Idlib province in the country’s north and a small area in the Syrian Golan Heights in the south. Kurdish forces are in eastern Syria, but the regime has resumed control over central cities and holds vital contiguity in the south from the Mediterranean coast to the Jordanian border.

The capture of the Naseeb crossing is particularly important because it can ensure a resumption of the flow of goods from Jordan to Syria, which is critical to both countries’ economies.

Civilians pass by a Syrian forces' tank of President Bashar al Assad in Deraa, Syria July 7, 2018.
REUTERS/ Omar Sanadiki

No less significant is the great achievement by Russian President Vladimir Putin. While he hosts the World Cup, Putin is cementing his military success in Syria. He stood by the Syrian dictator when most of the international community wanted him out, and he achieved Assad’s survival.

At the same time, ahead of his summit with U.S. President Donald Trump a week from Monday, Moscow is trying to impose a new diplomatic solution in southern Syria that will assure his influence and serve the Assad regime as well.

From the Israeli side of the Golan border, artillery fire by the regime at rebel forces could be seen in the Jubata al-Khashab area north of Quneitra. After a mortar shell landed in the buffer zone east of the fence near Quneitra, the Israeli army responded Friday with fire at a Syrian military position nearby.

Israeli officials, among them Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who meets with Putin in Moscow on Wednesday), have stressed in recent days the importance of the Golan Separation of Forces Agreement of 1974. 

In this way, Israel is signaling it won’t let the Syrian army bring in heavy weapons such as tanks to the area where forces have been depleted. At the same time, it seeks to restore to the Syrian Golan UN observers who left the area four years ago after the rebels captured most of the border area.

If the surrender agreements are honored in the Daraa area, the regime will probably focus on the Syrian side of the Golan and strive for similar agreements with local militias, some of which, according to Syrian reports, have in recent years forged good ties with Israel.

Israel also has an interest in Syrian forces’ taking the area without bloodshed. The tri-border area with Jordan is a separate issue. A local Islamic State branch still controls that area, and unless an additional surrender deal is clinched, Assad will probably use a great deal of force without Jordan or Israel intervening, as long as there is no “spillage” of gunfire into their countries.