Syria’s Southern Front

The army is determined to retake the area. Israel is determined to prevent it

By Abdel Bari Atwan

Most analysts linked this week’s visit to Amman by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his meeting with King Abdallah to the talks held in the Jordanian capital just hours later – without publicity – by Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and his Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, and to the so-called ‘deal of the century’ they are in the process of formulating.

But there is another, no less important, facet to Netanyahu’s surprise visit. This relates to southern Syria and to coordinating Israeli and Jordanian responses to the strategic, military, humanitarian and economic fallout of developments there and their impact on both countries and the wider region.

There have been numerous indications that war is imminent in southern after the failure of regional and international efforts to reach a peaceful solution that preserves the current de-escalation in this region, as happened elsewhere in Syria, most recently Eastern Ghouta.

These indications include: 

– The intensification of Syrian air-force attacks on armed opposition concentrations in the governorates of Deraa and Quneitra, especially in the barren hilly terrain between Deraa and Suwaida which due to its ruggedness is a natural refuge for several paramilitary groups, some of which are linked to Israel.

– The downing of an Israeli drone in northern Syria, thought to have been on a mission to monitor Iranian and Syrian military deployments in several parts of the country.  

– The unprecedented build-up of Syrian armoured units in preparation for an offensive, after the Syrian army command warned gunmen in the area to either leave peacefully or be forced out, and declared its intention to regain control of the southern border whatever the cost.

– The Israeli raid that targeted the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces and allied groups in a Syrian military base where they were tasked with protecting the overland route linking Tehran to Beirut via Iraq and Syria. The attack caused the deaths of 52 fighters, according to an official statement.

Israeli political and military leaders are alarmed by the presence of growing numbers of pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian paramilitary groups within Syria and near the borders of occupied Palestine in southern Lebanon and southwestern Syria. They are wary of the unprecedented combat experience they have acquired fighting on two fronts: first against Islamic State (IS) in Iraq, and then against various armed factions – including the Nusra Front, Jaish al-Islam, Failaq-ar-Rahman and Ahrar ash-Sham to name but a few– in Syria, especially in Aleppo, Homs and Eastern Ghouta.

Israel is determined not to allow the Hezbollah model to be replicated in Syria, especially in areas near the occupied Golan Heights. Hence the repeated Israeli airstrikes against bases hosting Iranian military advisors or Iraqi, Pakistani and Afghan Shia groups as well as Hezbollah, recently extending to east of the Euphrates. 

With the backing of the US, Israel seeks to sever the Tehran-Beirut land link, even if that leads to all-out war in the region, because it is aware that this conduit will stifle it sooner or later and sees it as an existential threat following the neutralization of Jordan and Egypt via peace treaties.

The Syrian leadership relegated the southern front to the bottom of its order of priorities temporarily while completing its recovery of more strategically important and pressing locations such as Aleppo, Homs, Ghouta, Palmyra and Deir az-Zor. Having achieved these goals and fully secured the capital Damascus by ejecting the gunmen from Ghuta, three main areas remain: First, the southern governorates of Quneitra and Deraa; secondly, east of the Euphrates and especially Deir-az-Zor with its oil and gas reserves; and finally Idlib in the north.

More than 40,000 soldiers have been deployed in preparation for the southern offensive, according to reliable sources, suggesting that a decisive showdown is imminent. It is doubtful that the Syrian army, feeling confident after the battle for Ghouta, would launch such an operation without a green light from its Russian ally, as has been the case in similar cases. This follows the dead end reached in negotiations between Russia and the US aimed at achieving an acceptable settlement due to the intransigence of the armed groups, their insistence on all their conditions being met and the support some receive from Israel. It is not in Israel’s interest for these groups to evacuate as their counterparts did in Eastern Ghouta and Aleppo and for the Syrian army to retake control.

We do not know what issues Netanyahu discussed with the Jordanian monarch regarding southern Syria during their unexpected meeting — which was only made public several hours after its conclusion — following the closure of the Military Operations Centre (MOC) that used to coordinate action in Syria after some of its participants fell out with each other. What we do know is that the Jordanian leadership finds itself in an embarrassing position in light of the Jordanian public’s growing support for Syria, antipathy toward the US, and resolute opposition to the ‘ deal of the century’ whose details were conveyed to Amman by Kushner and Greenblatt and is seen as an attempt to liquidate the Palestinian cause.

The detonation of southern Syrian front could lead to Israeli and possibly also US intervention, while causing a human flood refugees to a debt-ridden country that has just emerged from a wave of mass popular protests that were economic in appearance but political in essence, and whose embers still glow beneath the ashes.

Syria continues to defy those who have spent the past seven years conspiring against it. This time, eyes should be turned to its south, where new and shocking surprises may be in store for the Israelis and their allies.