The Struggle for Southern Syria

Damascus cannot allow the creation of a US-backed ‘emirate’ on its border with Jordan

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Reports of a major Syrian military build-up along the international highway linking Damascus to Deraa indicate that the next big battle in Syria will be on the southern front, aimed at restoring control over the entirety of the Hawran Plain, reopening the border crossing with Jordan, and reasserting Syrian state sovereignty over the area by force, whatever the consequences.

The armed groups active in the region, notably the tribal forces stationed along the border with Jordan, declaeed a state of maximum alert after Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, at a press conference with his Jordanian counterpart Ayman Safadi in Sochi, said that Western moves in the border area were in violation of the de-escalation agreements. He hinted that a battle could be imminent aimed at eliminating these groups and bringing their control of the area to an end.

This escalation coincided with a number of developments on the southern front, notably the conclusion of the three-week-long Eager Lion military manoeuvres on the Jordanian side of the border — involving troops from 17 countries under US supervision – and the visit to Amman of the new US secretary of state, Mike Pompeo. This came amid leaks to the media about an American plan to establish three new entities on Syrian territory: a Kurdish entity in the northeast (including al-Hasaka, al-Qamishli and Ain Arab), a Sunni tribal one along the eastern bank of the Euphrates up to the oil and gas reserves of east of Dair az-Zour, and a third fiefdom in the south comprising Quneitra, Suweida and Deraa.

To facilitate the task of creating these enclaves, the US has established military bases and zones for its forces in Syria – northeast of the former Islamic State (IS) capital of al-Raqqa, and in a 55-kilometre radius around al-Tanaf near the Jordanian border – while supplying sophisticated weapons to the Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and to the Jordanian-sponsored southern tribal army. These include artillery, armoured vehicle, four-wheel drive vehicles and TOW anti-tank missiles.

Safadi said at the Sochi press conference that Jordan was concerned that the cease-fire and de-escalation agreements could break down and stressed that nobody has an interest in escalation. But with the US military preventing the Syrian army and its militia allies from approaching al-Tanaf and the oil and gas reserves, and the Syrian military attempting to challenge this state of affairs and restore sovereignty over this sensitive and strategically important area, the cards could be reshuffled. This would leave Jordan in a highly delicate position.

The US now espouses the Israeli demand that Syrian government, and/or allied Iranian and Hezbollah forces, should be prevented from establishing a presence on the southern front or near the occupied Golan Heights. But that does not mean the Syrians and their Russian and Iranian allies will not take the battle there, following their success in recovering Eastern Ghouta, and previously Aleppo, Palmyra, Deir az-Zour and many other Syrian cities.

The Syrian army cannot possibly accept the creation of an ‘Emirate of Hawran’ in the south and the long-term cutting off of the country’s border to Jordan – its main overland export route to the Arab world – which would be an enormous economic, political and strategic setback. It is merely a matter of priorities as far as the Syrian military command is concerned, and it is firmly convinced that the time has now come to turn southwards – even if this means confronting the Israeli army and possibly US forces too, in addition to some Israeli-backed armed factions. It is, after all, operating on its own territory with the aim of securing the country’s borders.

The question being asked by analysts monitoring these developments is what will the Jordanian government’s position be, and what role it might ‘reluctantly’ play if the cease-fire collapses and war breaks out near its northern borders.

So far, the government has done little but issue denials. Its official spokesman, Muhammad al-Moumani, has been busy releasing denial statements in the past few days, most recently to deny that the ‘unidentified’ missiles that recently targeted military sites in Hama and Homs were launched from Jordanian territory.

They key issue about which the Jordanian government has so far kept silent is its response to US President Donald Trump’s request that it send forces to Syria to replace American troops or fight alongside them to create the proposed Kurdish, Sunni tribal and Hawrani enclaves. Saudi Arabia replied positively to Trump’s request, Egypt agreed to and then refused it, and Qatar gave its blessings. But Jordan has not declared its real position, though the preponderant view is that it will concede, as it cannot say ‘no’ to the Americans given its dire economic difficulties and the cut-off of Gulf financial aid to Jordan (and its channelling to the US instead). Moreover, the US is banking heavily in its endeavour on Jordan’s highly capable Special Forces.

Jordan stands to be one of the biggest losers if war breaks out in southern Syria. Even if it does not get directly involved — which is most unlikely, because neutrality will be prohibited – it can expect an influx of tens of thousands more refugees at least. Jordanian public opinion has also become increasingly supportive of the Russian-Syrian-Iranian axis and hostile to the US, especially after Trump’s relocation of the US embassy to occupied Jerusalem and the nature of US plans to dismember Syria has become more apparent.

It would make sense for Jordan to dissociate itself from these plans and the further destabilization they entail of Syria and the entire region. Such schemes have been attempted for the past seven years, and we have seen several of the countries involved– most recently Qatar, and perhaps Saudi Arabia too — wash their hands of them after the Syrian army demonstrated an extraordinary capacity, contrary to their expectations, to stand fast and recover most of the country’s territory. The US’ current attempt to revive them does not stand a reasonable chance of succeeding.

The Jordanian authorities would be well advised to prevent the flames from the imminent fire in southern Syria from scorching their own highly combustible robes. Jordan’s existence, security and stability depend on it having ‘zero problems’ with its Arab neighbours, and distancing itself as far as possible from US policies, especially the racist and aggressive policies pursued by the Trump administration, which subject every Arab and Muslim to extortion and view the Middle East and the Islamic World purely from the perspective of Israeli arrogance.