From Eastern Ghouta to the south: Syria in the balance

Bassel Oudat , Thursday 12 Apr 2018

After this week’s reported chemical weapons attacks by the Syrian regime on Douma in Eastern Ghouta, there are fears the struggle will now spread to the strategic area of southern Syria, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Douma, eastern Ghouta
File photo: A man stands on rubble of damaged buildings in the besieged town of Douma, Eastern Ghouta, in Damascus, Syria March 30, 2018 (Reuters)

International sources have confirmed that on 8 April the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad bombed the suburb of Douma outside Damascus using chemical weapons, killing at least 60 people and leaving more than 1,000 injured.

The surprise escalation forced armed opposition factions controlling part of the surrounding area of Eastern Ghouta to surrender to regime and Russian forces.

The escalation was preceded by air and land attacks on the area that has a population of 400,000, also killing more than 1,000 civilians in one month.

The aim is to take back control of the area by the regime and Iranian-backed militias with the blessing of Russia.

The Syrian government and its ally Russia have denied involvement in the Saturday attack. International bodies led by the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) are trying to establish what happened in Douma.

The conflict was further complicated on Monday when unidentified planes struck a Syrian air base near Homs, killing at least 14 people, including Iranian personnel.

Syria and Russia accused Israel of carrying out the attack.

Israel, which has struck Syrian army locations many times in the course of the country’s seven-year civil war, has neither confirmed nor denied mounting the raid.

On Monday, US President Donald Trump promised what he called “quick and forceful” action in response to the suspected chemical weapons attack on Douma, appearing to suggest a potential US military response. He said, however, that Washington was “getting more clarity” on who was responsible for the attack.

After a fierce and destructive military campaign, the battle for Eastern Ghouta thus seems to be nearing its end, and the last bastion under opposition control near the capital Damascus has almost fallen.

The armed opposition will lose one of three areas under its control if this happens, the others being Idlib in the north of the country and Deraa in the south.

The fall of Eastern Ghouta has coincided with escalation in the south.

On 12 March, regime air raids bombed southern towns under opposition control in the first such campaign in this area since the US and Russia, with Jordanian participation, reached an agreement on 7 July 2017 to maintain a “de-escalation zone.”

The attacks raised questions about plans for this triangle in the southwest of the country on the border with Occupied Palestine and Jordan, especially since the US has not responded to the breach of the truce agreement it sponsored.

The air raids coincided with the mobilisation of regime troops to frontlines with the opposition and near strategic towns close to the Jordanian border. There were some military skirmishes between the two sides for the first time in a year, but these did not evolve into all-out battles.

Since southern Syria is a strategic region not only for the US, but also for Israel and Jordan, it was unlikely that the opposition would risk breaching a truce sponsored by the US since this would be a direct challenge to Washington, Tel Aviv and Amman.

It is more likely that the US made a deal with Russia giving the latter free pass in the south.

On 18 February, the regime escalated air and land attacks in Eastern Ghouta, and residents began to flee for their lives, calling opposition forces in the south to their aid since these are geographically closer and more disciplined.

In response, the armed opposition in the south decided to suspend the truce in solidarity with the people of Eastern Ghouta, saying it would launch attacks against regime positions in the south because “the people of Syria are united and their cause is one.”

Air raids by the regime appeared to be pre-emptive strikes and a warning to opposition combatants in the Free Syrian Army (FSA) planning attacks to end the siege of the area and ease the pressure on their comrades in Eastern Ghouta.

Responding to threats by the opposition to act in solidarity with the people of Eastern Ghouta, a spokesman for the regime’s Hemeim Military Base said “we do not believe the rebel groups in southern Syria have the courage to attack government positions. This area is subject to the de-escalation agreement and any violation is unacceptable.”

Opposition factions in the south have been criticised for procrastinating in supporting Eastern Ghouta against attacks by the regime, with statements by regime officials and Russian military personnel suggesting that southern Syria will be the next battleground for regime forces after Eastern Ghouta.

However, after the opposition threatened to breach the truce and attack regime positions, it received warnings from the US to the effect that the de-escalation agreement in the south was the subject of a US commitment.

“Igniting a war against the regime in the south will give the regime and Russia the pretext to kill more civilians and occupy more land. This would end the truce through which we can negotiate with the Russians to reach a solution… We urge you not to give the regime an excuse to bomb the area and eliminate the last stronghold of the moderate opposition in Syria,” such warnings said.

The US also held an emergency meeting in Jordan regarding “mock” operations in Syria, but it did not divulge the result of this meeting.

Opposition figure Iyad Barakat said “the reason why the opposition forces in the south did not take action is because of pressure from the US and the International Coalition that want to maintain the truce.”

“There is also no popular support in the area for carrying out attacks against regime forces because that would lead to random strikes against local residents. This would result in more refugees and displaced residents who are already exhausted and displaced,” Barakat said.

US ally Jordan is concerned that any breach of the ceasefire in the south will lead to an explosion of violence and tens of thousands more refugees fleeing to Jordan, which already hosts more than 600,000 Syrian refugees accounting for half of the Syrians living in Jordan.

Amman is also worried the violence could reach its territory if fighting begins along the border.

Israel has the same concerns as Jordan, namely that militias loyal to Iran, most notably from the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah, could take control of positions close to the Golan Heights and Jordan’s northern border and constitute a threat to its security.

However, this is undermined by reports that there is in fact a “backdoor relationship” and indirect coordination between Israel and Iran.

The de-escalation agreement in the south has reduced the violence and destruction.

The opposition factions have mostly adhered to it, as has the regime, unlike in other ceasefire areas such as Idlib and Eastern Ghouta, because it was sponsored by the US, while in other areas the sponsors were Russia, Iran and Turkey.

The possible collapse of the ceasefire in the south could change the course of events for Jordan and Israel. They could try to convince the US to continue to guarantee the truce in southern Syria, where the US, Israel, Jordan, Russia, Iran, the Syrian regime, Iran-backed militias and the FSA are all involved.

The US and Russia see Israel’s interests as their top priority, and to a lesser degree those of Jordan. It is in their interest that there are no confrontations between Israel and Iran in the south of Syria, or military confrontations between the opposition, the regime and Russia a few kilometres away from Jordan’s borders.

It is most likely that the tensions will be contained before they get out of control. In the short run, Washington, Moscow, Amman and Tel Aviv will likely coordinate together to prevent the collapse of the safe zone in southern Syria.

However, Russian and regime operations may also expand to the south after the retaking of control of Eastern Ghouta. It is also in Jordan’s interest that the Syrian regime re-opens the border crossing between Amman and Damascus.

US policy in Syria remains ambiguous, and it could withdraw from any area at any time.

US President Donald Trump said in early April that US troops would withdraw from Syria, but then retracted and asked Saudi Arabia to foot the bill for the US operations and froze $200 million in funds earmarked for Syria.

Russia will need to decide whether to agree with Washington or risk marginalisation. It may need to accept the US managing the war in the south of Syria, while throwing it the crumbs.

*This story was first published in Al-Ahram Weekly 

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