Analysis

As U.S. and Turkey Argue Over Idlib, Syria's Wild South Reawakens

Despite the cease-fire announced a year ago, violence in Daraa province has resumed. The clashes may provide Israel a new front

Syrian men wave rebel flags as they demonstrate in Azaz, north of Aleppo, July 26, 2019.
Bakr Alkasem / AFP

A little more than a year has passed since a cease-fire was reached in southern Syria. Russian police have been patrolling near the border, Syrian regime forces have spread out in Daraa province, and pro-Iranian militias and Hezbollah fighters are entrenched in their positions.

The status quo appears to let the local people live normal lives. But in recent weeks and especially since the end of July, the media and human rights groups in Syria have reported violent clashes between local militias and the pro-regime and pro-Iranian forces.

According to the group the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office, which documents casualty numbers in the province, at least 12 people have been killed since the cease-fire went into effect. There have also been reports of executions of rebel fighters, abductions of civilians, and torture in the regime’s prisons. The militias, for their part, have often attacked Syrian military targets, fired guns and laid bombs at roadblocks, and called on civilians to fight the Syrian regime in the area.

Officially, the Russian police and the Syrian army are responsible for the area’s security. But the rebel militias still have large quantities of small arms and explosives with which they can keep the resistance alive. The regime accuses the militias of disrupting the calm in order to serve Israel’s interests, while the militias accuse the regime and the pro-Iranian and Hezbollah forces of disturbing the status quo in order to take over the south.

Graffiti threatening “anyone who has sold his conscience, honor and religion” has appeared on walls in the city of Daraa, adding: “We see you and are waiting for you. Revolution until victory.” Such slogans apparently target the militia heads who signed the cease-fire, which some militias see as a betrayal of the resistance to President Bashar Assad. But the slogans might have been written to hide the real perpetrators.

According to one assumption, Israel wants to rid the area of the Syrian army’s 4th Armored Division, which also consists of Iranian and Hezbollah troops and is commanded by Maher Assad, Assad’s nephew.

Israel prefers to have the area controlled by the so-called 5th Corps, which Russia put together with rebel groups that signed the cease-fire agreement, hoping it would keep the pro-Iranian forces at bay. Another assumption is that the Iranians and Maher Assad are instigating the clashes to prove that the 5th Corps can’t control the region, so the regime must have full control.

Russia's role

A Syrian army soldier stands next to a Syrian flag in Umm al-Mayazen near Deraa, July 10, 2018.
Omar Sanadiki / Reuters

These assumptions, which are no more than speculation, stem from the dissatisfaction of some Syrian forces with Russia’s military control in this and other areas of Syria, and with the cease-fire agreements Russia dictated. Another resentment is Russia’s intervention in filling senior posts in the Syrian army.

Israel must follow such developments closely. Though Russia hasn’t kept its promise to keep the pro-Iranian forces away from the Golan border, Russia is the main guarantee that pro-Iranian forces, including Hezbollah, don’t establish strongholds and expand their control in the region.

In Daraa, life has slowly returned to normal; shops have taken up business again and hundreds of refugees have come home from Jordan. The southern border crossing between Syria and Jordan has reopened, but the Syrian civil administration isn’t functioning yet.

Under the cease-fire agreement, the Syrian army won’t enter the city, but the Syrian flag will be hoisted atop government buildings and regime officials will return and operate services like schools and courts, with reconstruction funds flowing in. But such efforts are being held up and most services are operated by local committees. The courts are run by tribal heads and influential officials.

The regime has also undertaken to free some 4,500 prisoners and detainees, but so far it has released only about 1,000. This is causing bitterness that threatens the cease-fire.

Russia has established cease-fires between the army and rebel militias throughout Syria as part of returning state control to Assad. But if a significant cease-fire like the one in the south collapses, it will jeopardize not only the others but also the legitimacy of Russia’s political efforts, especially its bid for a comprehensive solution.

The combustible north

On Thursday, Najat Rochdi, the humanitarian adviser to the UN special envoy for Syria, said she regretted the collapse of a cease-fire in the northwest, adding that fresh violence threatened the lives of millions after more than 500 civilians were killed since late April.

Smoke billows above buildings during a reported air strike by pro-regime forces on Khan Sheikhun in  Idlib province, Syria, August 5, 2019.
Omar Haj Kadour / AFP

Idlib province in the northwest hosts some 50,000 armed rebels. Russia demands that Turkey keep the agreement signed in September under which heavy and medium weapons will leave the province. In exchange, Assad and the Russians won’t launch an offensive that could cause a massive refugee wave from Idlib into Turkey.

So far Turkey hasn’t carried out its part of the agreement, whether because it can’t persuade some militias to lay down their heavy arms or because it’s conditioning this on setting up a security zone in north Syria. Turkey insists that this area, which would include the Kurdish regions and be 25 to 30 kilometers (19 miles) deep and 40 kilometers long, be under its exclusive control.

This demand was the source of the disagreement this week between Ankara and Washington, which objects to Turkey's demand for fear the security zone would actually be a Turkish occupation that would harm the Syrian Kurds, America’s allies, in the war against the Islamic State.

But after three tense days of negotiations, the Pentagon and Turkish Defense Ministry reached an agreement to set up a joint operations center to supervise a new “safe zone” designed to let thousands of refugees in Turkey return home. It’s not clear how and when the safe zone would be set up, how big it would be and how the joint supervision would take place. But the agreement would block, for the time being, Turkey’s plan to carry out a large military offensive in north Syria.

Washington warned Turkey against launching such an offensive; maybe it will be able to reduce its presence in Syria if such an agreement can ensure the Kurds’ security. At the same time, the Kurdish leaders, fearing that the Turkish-American agreement would give Turkey a free hand in Kurdish areas, are torn by a power struggle between the Kurdish Democratic Union Party and another group in Syria, the Kurdish National Council, over the Syrian Kurds’ representation in the political process.

The Kurdish National Council, which is supported by Turkey, is a member of the Syrian opposition and thus is taking part in the peace talks. The Democratic Union Party and its military wing are considered by Turkey a terror group affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, the PKK, which is based in Turkey and Iraq. Turkey doesn’t want to let the Democratic Union Party take part in the political process and considers U.S. support for such forces “support for terrorism.”

The Democratic Union Party doesn’t aspire to set up an independent Kurdish state, it supports cooperation with the Assad regime and hopes to achieve autonomy as part of the political process. In recent weeks many members of the Kurdish National Council have defected to the Democratic Union Party, enhancing its political status and bargaining power for its recognition.

But the agreement between the United States and Turkey, if and when it can be implemented, could have a key influence not only on Kurdish politics but also on Idlib’s status. Turkey would no longer have an excuse to shirk its part of the agreement with Russia and make the militias give up their heavy and medium weapons.

Don’t hold your breath. Even if Turkey starts negotiating with the militias, this won’t go smoothly because some rebel forces in Idlib are deeply divided over whether to keep the weapons and continue the struggle against the regime; they're concerned about the guarantees for their people’s safety after they lay down arms.

And even if a miracle happens and Turkey succeeds, Russia and Syria will face a dilemma: Determining their position regarding Turkey’s status as an occupying force in Syria.