The cease-fire in southern Syria that took effect on Sunday noon will not be the first of its kind attempted in the country, but it is unique in that it is the first product of a Russian-American agreement after the blows exchanged between U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
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Last month, a 48-hour cease-fire was undertaken without much success: It was breached when Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces attacked the Daraa area. Before that, local cease-fires were declared mainly between the opposition groups themselves.
The interesting – and dubious – part of the approaching cease-fire is that the opposition forces, Iran and Hezbollah are not part of the agreement and it is still unclear whether they will comply with it. From the wording of the public announcements of Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov and U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the new cease-fire (which has no time limit) is meant to be a first step. The intent is that it will lead to possible further agreements of de-escalation in southern Syria along its border with Israel and Jordan, and subsequent accords over three more security zones in northern and central Syria.
These are two separate discussions. The cease-fire puts to the test Russia’s ability to act as a guarantor for the conduct of Assad’s army and the effectiveness of Russian military police to monitor it on the ground. In this case, the United States is a kind of passive partner whose entire purpose is to provide an international umbrella for the cease-fire and mainly to present Russian-American reconciliation for all to see.
The second issue involves defining the boundaries of the security zones and how they will be monitored. These discussions are being held in Astana, Kazakhstan, with the participation of Russia, Turkey and Iran but without the United States. The fifth round of talks in Astana ended this week with no real results. The main sticking point between the sides is the means of monitoring the zones, their borders and the power that the monitoring forces will have. Even if the new cease-fire holds, it doesn’t mean that the establishment of the security zones will advance in an effective manner.
It seems easier to reach a cease-fire agreement in the south of Syria rather than in other regions, and especially the north, because of the convergence of Russian and American interests to push out Iran and the militias it backs, such as the Shi’ite al-Nujaba and Hezbollah.
The same holds true for security zones. In contrast to Turkey’s massive involvement in the north of the country and its demand to be part of monitoring the security zones there, it has no strategic demands or intent to control Syria’s south. Iran has no natural power base in the south and its dream to establish a land bridge between Iran and Syria doesn’t depend that area.
The urgent need to calm the south also stems from the need to calm Jordan and Israel; the latter is perceived as liable to intervene on the Syrian front if it believes that pro-Iranian forces might install themselves along its border. And Israel, which is an active partner in talks in Amman about setting up security zones in southern Syria, understands that it will have to make do with Russian monitoring in this region. At least at this time, the United States has no intention of sending monitoring forces or involving itself militarily in the Syrian conflict, with the exception of the war against the Islamic State on the Raqqa front and the Deir al-Zor province.
In the Daraa area and particularly in the Suwayda province that borders the Golan Heights, Israel has allies, including the Druze, the Fursan al-Joulan militia and units of the Free Syrian Army. According to Arab pundits, these allies could serve as a foundation for the establishment of a southern Syrian army based on the model of the South Lebanon Army that Israel founded and supported.
The purpose of these forces would be to prevent Hezbollah and other pro-Iranian militias from taking over in the area of the Syrian Golan Heights after the war against ISIS is over and U.S. troops leave the area. The working assumption in Israel is that the expected departure of the Americans will leave the stage completely open for Russia, which might then reach a compromise with Iran over the area’s control in accordance with their joint interest in keeping Assad in power. This is the source of Israel’s objection to solely Russia having control over monitoring in southern Syria, but it will have to live with the outcome that has been achieved so far.
These considerations are not invisible to some of the opposition groups. Their main fear is that Syria will be divided into three spheres of influence – Russian, Iranian and Turkish – and that these countries will be the ones to decide Syria’s political future without having to take into consideration the positions of the opposition or the rebel militias. This brought on the urgency in moving ahead with the cease-fire and the security zones in parallel with the political negotiations that are expected to restart in Geneva this month.
It is becoming increasingly clear to opposition and rebel forces on the ground that they are being sidelined to a narrow political alleyway in which they will have little room to bargain in the face of a Russian takeover of the country and its expected division into spheres of foreign influence. This is all the more true considering that most of the legitimate militias (except for the Kurdish ones) have lost American backing, becoming irrelevant in the game of the great powers, and have been left to conduct negotiations with Russia from a position of weakness.