Syrian regime forces and Iranian militias began to bombard towns and villages in the Daraa governorate in southern Syria last week, causing widespread material damage and loss of life.
The campaign defies an American warning not to escalate in this area which is the subject of a de-escalation agreement supported by the US and Russia.
The sudden escalation on the part of Damascus and its allied forces occurred some hours after Washington vowed to take “firm and appropriate” steps if the Syrian regime violated the agreement in southern Syria.
The US State Department issued a warning directly addressed to Damascus stressing “the need to continue to apply and respect the ceasefire”, adding that the outbreak of any battle in that area would “risk a major escalation in the Syrian war”.
It is believed that such an escalation would lead to a confrontation between Israel and Iran and its allies. This was the second caution of this sort from Washington in June.
Not dissuaded, the Syrian regime moved to launch an operation against militant opposition factions in southern Syria, practically the only forces left operating under the banner of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
President Bashar Al-Assad, in a recent television appearance, said that “there are ongoing communications between the Russians, Americans and Israelis” concerning the situation in the south. He warned that if the diplomatic path failed, he would use military force to recover “every inch” of Syrian territory.
As the regime amassed forces along the borders of the areas controlled by the opposition and bombarded the areas from the land and air, militant factions in the south announced that they had united, set up a joint operations room and were prepared to repel the regime’s attacks. Referring to the regime, they vowed to “teach it a lesson”.
“We are telling the whole world that we have fulfilled all our international commitments under the agreements guaranteeing de-escalation and political negotiations. We have nothing left but to prepare the earth to receive any one who advances so much as by one foot onto this blood-drenched soil. We are united in the cradle of revolution only by our oath to uproot Al-Assad and his militias and all terrorist wings from IS, and to make this the final spark and message that causes the earth to quake beneath their feet.”
Washington condemned the regime’s escalation. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said, “the United States remains deeply troubled by reports of increasing Syrian regime operations in southwest Syria within the boundaries of the de-escalation zone negotiated between the United States, Jordan and the Russian Federation last year and reaffirmed between Presidents Trump and Putin in Da Nang, Vietnam in November.
Syrian regime military and militia units, according to our reports, have violated the southwest de-escalation zone and initiated airstrikes, artillery and rocket attacks.” She added that her government “continues to warn both the Russian government and the Assad regime of the serious repercussions of these violations and demands that Russia restrain pro-regime forces from further actions within the southwest de-escalation zone.”
Yet, so far, the US administration has done nothing concrete to back up its warnings and prevent the regime from continuing with its offensives.
The feeble US position has led the Syrian opposition to believe that there is a tacit US-Russian agreement to enable Russian military aircraft take part in the regime’s operations.
Lending weight to this suspicion was a US message to the main opposition factions in the south telling them not to expect military support from the US-led coalition for their fight to repel a regime offensive in southern Syria and the areas near Jordan and the Golan Heights.
“The US government wants to make it clear that you should not base your decisions on an assumption or expectation that we will intervene militarily,” the message stated.
The militant opposition refused to heed the US advice, interpreting it as an invitation to surrender to or reconcile with the regime which, in turn, would encourage the regime to avenge itself against the areas that had risen up against it.
The opposition also held that the US should address its advice to the Russians and the regime, to compel them to abide by their commitments to deescalate, not kill civilians and work towards a satisfactory solution to the Syrian crisis.
The opposition decided to respond militarily, saying that it had no better alternative than to confront the regime and its militias which, it added, cannot be trusted.
It acknowledged that it was aware that those forces were hundreds of times stronger than the opposition forces and that the most they can do is to hold out for a period of time.
It added that it has set up an emergency operations room to help displaced persons and stressed that its forces would not remain in towns and villages so as to keep civilians out of the line of fire.
Unfortunately, the regime, as is its habit when attacking the opposition, targeted towns and villages with its missiles, killing dozens of civilians and destroying homes, a hospital and other civil infrastructure.
The regime has long had a policy of forcing the resistance’s popular support bases to choose between destruction and displacement, or forcing the factions to surrender.
The US “advice” came as a surprise to the militant opposition in southern Syria. For years the militant opposition has received US support via the Military Operations Centre (MOC) in Jordan, which is run by the US, Britain, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
The opposition has taken the message as a sign that either the Americans have failed to convince the Russians and, by extension, the regime, to halt the offensive against the south or that they struck a deal with the Russians.
It appears that the Syrian regime wants to open and secure the international highway that links Damascus to Jordan, via Daraa.
At the same time, it is wary of opening fronts to the west of Daraa near the Golan, undoubtedly because of the sensitivity of that area to the Israelis, especially given that Syrian forces are fighting alongside militias loyal to Iran.
The area near the Syrian Golan is a no-go area for such a combination of forces, unless somehow Damascus and Moscow worked out an agreement with Washington and Israel.
To make the situation worse, Jordan has closed its borders to tens of thousands of refugees fleeing the regime and Russian bombardment.
Amman stated that it did not have the financial or infrastructural capacities to absorb a new influx of refugees, especially given that it already hosts around 650,000 of them at a cost of more than $10 billion.
The Syrian opposition fears that the disputes and interests of regional and international stakeholders in Syria outweigh the cause of the Syrian opposition and that ultimately the opposition will end up paying the greatest price.
Washington’s recent advice to the opposition not to calculate on US military support confirmed this and that Washington has backtracked on its long-held strategy in southern Syria to prevent regime forces from regaining control over the areas in the south near Jordan and occupied Palestine.
In general, the Syrian militant opposition in the south has not been able to withstand sustained assaults for long in view of the discrepancies in military assets and abilities between it and its adversaries which, in addition to the regime, include Russia and Iran.
That situation has been aggravated by the recent reluctance of the opposition’s allies — the US above all — to support it at this most critical moment. The opposition believes that developments in the south, against the backdrop of this crucial imbalance, will cast their shadow on the political track and especially on the constitutional drafting committee that the UN is trying to create.
Washington had backed the Free Syrian Army in southern Syria with arms and salaries for five years under a CIA-run military assistance programme.
The opposition’s hopes had been momentarily raised when Washington cautioned the Bashar Al-Assad regime and its Russian ally that violating the de-escalation zone would incur “serious repercussions”.
Those hopes soon dissipated with the abrupt message signalling, to all intents and purposes, that Washington had abandoned the opposition.
Most likely, there will be no large-scale military confrontations in southern Syria. However, Russia remains keen to enable the regime to recover large tracts of the south, 70 per cent of which is currently under the control of the opposition.
The US, for its part, remains intent on fulfilling the Israeli demand to keep Iranian and Hizbullah militias at least 50 kilometres away from Israeli borders, although Israel has not voiced an objection to the presence of official Syrian forces in the vicinity.
The US, in effectively turning its back on, selling out and inflicting a setback on the Syrian opposition, has once again demonstrated how little it cares about freedoms and human rights and how readily it breaks its pledges which it uses as temporary devices to attain its ends.
Washington is responsible for bringing southern Syria to this dangerous brink that places thousands of lives at risk. It has failed to shoulder its historic and moral responsibilities and is therefore complicit, alongside Russia, in the deaths of Syrians in the south today.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 28 June 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Washington abandons Syria’s south