The Assad regime has launched its offensive southwest of Syria, a zone ostensibly under a Russian-American ceasefire. Although Iranian-aligned forces have reportedly agreed to withdraw from a buffer zone near the Jordanian and Israeli borders, the threat of Iranian expansion remains high.
The Syrian army has launched offensive operations against northeastern Deraa, the southeastern most province in Syria which borders both the Golan Heights and Jordan. The regime has aerially bombarded the opposition-held towns of Al Harak and Busra al Harir, both within the bounds of the ceasefire zone.
The regime has reportedly deployed “rudimentary and non-discriminatory weapons” including barrel bombs. Suhail al-Hassan, commander of the Tiger Forces, is reportedly present in the province, a potential indication of Russia involvement. It remains to be seen if Russian air power and Iranian-backed ground forces will participate in the offensive and, if not, how the regime will fare without their involvement.
Potential Russian and Iranian involvement
In theory, Russia should be preventing escalation in this area. Russian forces are exclusively responsible for monitoring and enforcing a ceasefire zone in Syria’s southwest, negotiated by the US, Russia, and Jordan last summer. In July 2017, Russia deployed four battalions of military police to monitor a pair of safe zones in Syria, including the Deraa zone.
In recent days, Iranian forces have reportedly agreed to pull back from the southwest border zone. Iranian forces and Lebanese Hezbollah agreed to withdraw 40 km from both the Golan Heights and the Jordanian border, according to the Syrian Observancy for Human Rights (SOHR), a monitoring organization.
Even if Iranian-aligned forces honor the withdrawal agreement, their initial presence in the zone reflects poorly on Russia’s willingness and ability to restrain Iran. Turkey’s Anadolu Agency Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Lebanese Hezbollah, Zainebiyoun Brigades and Fatemiyoun Brigades were, in fact, operating in Deraa as of Tuesday. The Kuwaiti publication Al Rai has reported that Hezbollah’s special forces were deployed to Deraa to assist in the offensive.
Hezbollah, however, has not yet confirmed its involvement. Additionally, videos purporting to show the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Deraa over the past few days were in fact several years old.
Opposition sources have also reported Russian jets bombing rebel positions in Busra al Harir on today. SOHR has also repeated these claims, adding that Russia dropped at least 25 bombs on several towns in Deraa.
The collapse of the American-Russian brokered ceasefire raises the risk of Iranian infiltration close to the Israeli and Jordanian borders. One IRGC-controlled militia already signalled its intent to retake the Golan from Israel last year.
“Should the Syrian government make the request, we are ready to participate in the liberation of occupied Golan with our allies,” a spokesman from Harakat al Nujaba said.
In addition to the ability to threaten Israel, Iran’s presence may have been intended as leverage against the US. Iran reportedly refused to withdraw its troops in the southwest until the US evacuated its base in Tanf, on the Syrian-Iraqi border. The Tanf area has already been a testing ground for Iranian-backed forces to see how far it can push the US. Last year, a US airstrike targeted the IRGC-controlled militia Kata’ib Sayyid al Shuhada after it got too close to US forces at Tanf.
Potential obstacles to the regime offensive
The US has not yet signaled that it will disrupt Iranian expansion on the border. The US has warned Russia and the Assad regime that violations will result in “serious repercussions.” It has not, however, defined these repercussions or signaled a campaign might be in the works to disrupt Iranian expansion on the border.
Israel is working with Russia to mitigate the security risks, a potentially risky approach. On Monday, Israel’s national security advisor traveled to Moscow to discuss Iranian presence in Syria, which may have resulted in the 40 km buffer zone. But given Russia’s recent negligence (or willful ignorance) in preventing Iranian expansion in this zone and broader alignment with Iran over the course of the war, Moscow cannot fully resolve Israel’s security dilemma.
The mainstream opposition in this region is coordinated and has external backing. In the face of the Assad offensive, the main rebel operations rooms under the Southern Front umbrella merged operations earlier this week in order to coordinate more effectively against the offensive. Israel has also aided the Syrian opposition in the region, as a hedge against both radicalization and regime expansion.