After heavy airstrikes against the opposition in the south of the country for the past two weeks, Russia has succeeded in decimating the armed opposition through individual agreements with various factions.
This has caused them to slowly collapse, even though they had earlier resisted fierce military campaigns by Russia, forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, and pro-Iran militias.
The countdown to ending the role of the opposition in southern Syria has thus started, bringing closer anticipated demographic changes in the area.
One of the largest opposition military factions in the south of the country agreed to sign a reconciliation agreement with Russian and regime forces requiring it to hand over heavy and medium weapons, end military operations and allow regime forces to enter the area to re-impose control.
In return, the leader of the faction would be given regional privileges. The deal fractured the opposition, which said its fighters would not leave other positions in the south under any circumstances.
It also called on “anyone able to carry a weapon” to head to the battlefields and begin what it called a “war of independence” or “people’s liberation war.”
The armed faction in question was in part persuaded to make the reconciliation deal by figures close to Moscow who have connections to the regime.
The deal installs a ceasefire, allows the intervention of Russian military police, raises the Syrian flag on government buildings and obliges fighters to surrender themselves or join a military brigade overseen by Russia.
The issue of detainees and kidnapped persons will not be resolved in the deal, Russia has said, but will be part of the Astana Process co-sponsored by Russia, Iran and Turkey and aimed at voiding the UN-sponsored Geneva Process considered to be the cornerstone for solving the Syrian crisis.
Russia wants to replace the Geneva Process with the Astana Process since the latter does not require regime change except by gradual reform or changes to the constitution in wartime.
Any elections would be difficult to monitor since the regime and its security agencies control most areas where the majority of the population is to be found.
During battles in the south of Syria, neither the regime nor the Russian air force was able to eliminate Islamic State (IS) fighters positioned in specific areas. The terrorist group has attacked opposition factions as if doing a favour to the regime.
The battles also avoided attacks on factions in areas close to the border with Israel in the Golan Heights out of fears of upsetting Israel. The regime forces include Iranian and Lebanese Hizbullah elements.
Israel has informed Moscow and Washington that it agrees to the Syrian regime deploying troops in Golan along its borders on certain conditions, most notably that no Iran-backed militias are present, including Hizbullah.
Israeli media sources said last week’s talks between chief of staff of the Israeli army Gadi Eisenkot and his US counterpart Joseph Dunford in Washington had primarily focused on this issue.
Eisenkot stressed that Israel would not allow the presence of Iranian militias of any type on its borders, and Dunford concurred.
Russian air strikes on the south began hours after the US announced it would not protect southern Syria, sending a message to factions fighting in the south to surrender.
The most likely reason for the US abandonment of its allies in the south is Moscow’s guarantee that it will remove Iranian forces from the border with Jordan and Israel. However, Russia has made similar promises in the past, and the US has continued to threaten if there is military activity in southern Syria.
Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman denied that there were Iranian troops in southern Syria, or that the Iranians were disguised in the uniforms of Al-Assad’s troops.
It was unusual for an Israeli official to say such things about the Iranian presence in Syria, and many suspected Russia was acting in coordination with Israel and with the backing of the US.
Syrian-Palestinian analyst Mustafa Al-Walie told Al-Ahram Weekly that “it is significant when Israel exonerates Iran of deploying in southern Syria and denies Iranian militias are blended with Al-Assad’s forces, and then the US suddenly annuls its commitment to de-escalation and abandons the opposition factions and Jordan closes the border to refugees.”
“All of this is not the result of Israeli-US comfort at the role Iran is playing in Syria, or that Iranian troops are far from the Golan border, but is due to Tehran and Al-Assad taking a back seat in Russian-Israeli relations.”
The US position is influenced by Israel’s preferences. It cannot ignore Israel’s security concerns and Moscow’s attempts to relink Israel’s security to the presence of Syrian regime forces on the border.
“The Syrian regime alone can guarantee security in the south, and it has the power to do so by regaining control,” commented Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
Russia will not propose any settlement in the south that does not guarantee Israel’s security, and with Iranian militias fighting alongside regime forces in the south it is impossible for Israel to waiver on keeping Iranian troops and pro-Iranian forces at least 50 km away from its border except if the Iranian presence does not vitiate national security goals for Tel Aviv.
The battles in southern Syria are critical because the area controls the gateway to the occupied Syrian Golan Heights along the Israeli border and thus pose a threat to Israel.
Russian, Israeli and Western sources believe that there are no alternatives to protecting Israel without Al-Assad because he alone can guarantee there will be no attempt to retake the Golan Heights or liberate the occupied territories.
“Lieberman gave the green light to Al-Assad to attack Deraa” in southern Syria, Al-Walie said. “But this came with a high price tag attached in the form of rewards for Israel.”
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Russian rewards for Israel