In late September 2019, skirmishes erupted between local factions from Al-Suwayda Governorate — the self-named “Al-Karama Forces“ — and an armed faction from Dara’a Governorate known as the Eighth Brigade, which is on the payroll of the Russian‑backed Fifth Corps. The recent tensions in southern Syria have revealed a feverish struggle between the Iranian and Russian influences in the region, which will crystallize during the coming period.

Actors in southern Syria

To understand the complex reality on the ground in Al‑Suwayda and Dara’a, the two governorates of southern Syria, we must take a look at the roles played by all the actors — both local and foreign — that have contributed to the escalation of tension there. In Al-Suwayda, attitudes and loyalties towards the Syrian regime differ; while some groups are committed to protecting only Druze areas, such as the Al-Karama Forces (which include major local factions opposed to the Damascus government) and other small factions that follow their lead, other local pro‑Assad forces are working to support the regime, chief among them the National Defense Forces, which are under  Iranian influence.

In Dara’a, the only local party to have a tense relationship with Al-Suwayda is the Eighth Brigade, which is on the payroll of the regular Syrian Army but receives direct Russian support. Its leaders and members were part of the armed opposition in Dara’a before it signed a Russian‑sponsored reconciliation agreement in July 2018.

Also in the mix is the terrorist organization Islamic State, estimated to have several hundred members and cells that have spread into the Al‑Suwayda desert (east of the governorate) and the Yarmouk Basin region in Dara’a. Iran is accused of planting the fighters there in late 2018, after the government reached an agreement with Islamic State fighters to evacuate the Yarmouk Camp area in Damascus;[1] Iran’s aim is thought to have been to use the presence of the fighters in southern Syria to ramp up tensions in order to increase its own influence.

With regard to foreign actors, the Russian presence in southern Syria has increased since it reached a settlement agreement with the governorates of Dara’a and Quneitra in July 2018, which gave Russia a foothold in the region.[2] Moscow seems intent on imposing a federal model on the region to enhance its influence, and recent bouts of tension among residents of the two governorates suggest that, rather than consolidating the Syrian regime’s control over the region, Russia is seeking instead to preserve the status quo of the de facto authorities there. Although Al‑Suwayda and Dara’a formally remain under the influence of Damascus by virtue of the presence of State institutions, the local security and administrative reality indicates otherwise; Russia is therefore looking to establish a federal formula of local government based on the Russian model and in line with the draft constitution that it proposed to Damascus in early 2016,[3] which explicitly referred to federal rule and to strengthening the principle of the “decentralization of power.”

In contrast, Iran is seeking to consolidate its presence in the areas of southern Syria near the Israeli border in order to turn Syria into an arena for direct confrontation with Israel. The Iranians are investing money to stoke tensions in the region and damage Syria’s social fabric, and to buy the loyalty of groups in both Al‑Suwayda and Dara’a with a view to spreading the Iranian regime’s ideology. They are also intensifying efforts to establish local Iran-affiliated factions in the south and are continuing to recruit young men in Dara’a Governorate through pro‑Tehran sponsors, such as the Saraya al-Areen faction of the 313 Brigade in northern Dara’a, and to establish centers in Sidon, Da’el, and Izra’.[4] The 313 Brigade is the Iranian counterpart to the Russian-backed Eighth Brigade in Dara’a, and new recruits are trained in the Lajat area to the east of Dara’a, close to the Israeli–Syrian border.

The Syrian regime’s intelligence services are divided between Iranian and Russian influence; military intelligence sides with Russia, while air force intelligence sides with the Iranian presence in Dara’a. Rather than seeking Russia’s withdrawal from the governorate, the regime forces have been accused of using the Iran-backed militias to attempt to create division within the Druze religious community in Al-Suwayda in order to oppose the local armed groups, extend their grip over security in the area, and summon locals to reserve and mandatory military service. The regime appears to have adopted a kind of “passive neutrality” towards the escalation taking place in Al‑Suwayda, which is helping to preserve the state of tension until Russia is able to implement its plan throughout the region.

Iran’s role in heating up the south

Russia’s continued indirect pressure on the Iranian influence in southern Syria appears to have been intensifying ever since Moscow promised Tel Aviv that it would ward off any Iranian presence in the region, according to information leaked from the trilateral security meeting held between the USA, Russia, and Israel in June 2019. The most important outcome of that meeting was an agreement to drive Iran-affiliated forces to between 40 and 100 km from the Israeli border, but this has not yet been achieved. Meanwhile, Iran has concluded that the best way to respond to Russian pressure — in particular the incorporation of the armed opposition in Dara’a into the Fifth Corps and the consolidation of its influence at the expense of Iranian-backed groups and factions — is to use its local agents to agitate in the south.

Iran has ramped up tension between Dara’a and Al-Suwayda by exploiting the troubles created by the Fifth Corps in April 2020, seizing control of areas in the town of Al‑Qarya in Al‑Suwayda, and forcibly establishing military checkpoints. Since August 2020, it has been offering to arm hundreds of townspeople on the pretext of defending their lands against attack by Russian-backed elements; Iran’s ulterior motive seems to be to feed discord between the two neighboring provinces, however. Moreover, the conflict has drifted into the sphere of the Russian–Iranian rivalry in southern Syria, which led to rising tensions and clashes in late September 2020.

Southern Syria is geostrategically important for Iran’s interests and, as part of its “resistance” project, represents an advanced front line in any possible military confrontation with Israel. Iran has already made a number of large‑scale land and property purchases, participated in supervising the Nasib crossing on the Jordan–Syria border, and launched an active Shia movement in several areas of southern Syria. While Iran attempts to remain defiant in the face of Russia despite all the pressures that it is under, Russia has realized that Iran’s continued presence in Syria (despite the regime’s opposition) will delay the reconstruction phase and even curb Russia’s role in the Syrian arena the deeper that Iran seeps into the country.

Tehran is seeking to thwart Russia’s plan to help the people of southern Syria form a unified local army to drive Iran out of the region; in Dara’a in particular, Tehran’s operatives have repeatedly been attacked while Russia has turned a blind eye, supporting the only local faction (the Eighth Brigade) and paying its leaders to attract the largest possible number of volunteers to strike back at the Iranian presence. Tehran has responded by attempting to stir up conflict between Al‑Suwayda and Dara’a and by arming local factions in Al-Suwayda; as a result, hostilities towards some areas of Dara’a have intensified, and attempts have been made to storm the governorate — such as in March 2020 in the city of Sanamayn — despite the existence of regional protection agreements.

Although the regime’s control of Dara’a Governorate was achieved through the Russians by means of settlement agreements with the opposition factions, Russia has often remained behind the scenes, whereas elements affiliated with or supported by Iran have played a far more visible role. The rivalry between the factions supported by the two sides has become conspicuous, which Russia is keen to see continue in the hope that all Iranian elements will be eliminated by the locals.

By coordinating with the factions that have refused to leave Dara’a — some of whom have joined the Russian-backed Eighth Brigade — locals could eventually create a military security body, through which they could expel the Iran-affiliated elements from the governorate, be they Syrians in the Fourth Division commanded by Maher al-Assad or members of the Lebanese organization Hezbollah, as well as the remaining groups under Iranian influence in the south. This could lead to direct confrontation on the ground against Iranian expansionist attempts and, in turn, to the formation of local military forces comprising the people of the region; this would become the nucleus of the united “southern federation” of Syria, with all positions within its administrative, security, and political bodies being held by locals.

Summary and conclusions

  • The situation is intensifying in and around southern Syria, specifically in the governorates of Al-Suwayda and Dara’a, considering the frequent outbreak of skirmishes between conflicting local Syrian factions supported and sponsored by Russia and Iran.
  • There are signs that Russia believes that a backlash against the Iranian presence in the south is on the horizon. Moscow is making no attempt to hasten it on, however, choosing instead to curry the favor of the Israelis through its silence on the successive Israeli air strikes against Iranian military sites and bases in Syria.
  • It is hard to imagine that the Iranians will abandon their ambitions to expand their influence in southern Syria, as the end of their presence there would deny them important political leverage in negotiations on the overlapping regional issues in which they are involved, especially the Syrian issue.
  • The Americans may be willing to back Russian and Arab efforts to support the formation of a single military and political entity for the whole of southern Syria, which could accelerate plans to strike at the Iranian influence in the region.

References

[1] MENA Research and Study Center, “السويداء في دائرة خطر داعش”, June 18, 2018. Available at: https://mena-studies.org/ar/السويداء-في-دائرة-خطر-داعش/

[2] Al-Sharq al-Awsat, “تدخل روسي لوقف خطة النظام لاقتحام قرى في ريف درعا”, May 16, 2020. Available at: https://aawsat.com/home/article/2286246/تدخل-روسي-لوقف-خطة-النظام-لاقتحام-قرى-في-ريف-درعا

[3] Yekiti Media, “مسودة الدستور الروسي لسوريا… اعتماد الجمهورية السورية واللغة الكـــردية والحكم الذاتي”, January 25, 2017. Available at: https://ara.yekiti-media.org/مسودة-الدستور-الروسي-لسوريا-اعتماد-ال/

[4] Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, “عبر السخاء المادي و”الوتر الديني”.. عمليات التجنيد و”التشيُّع” تتواصل لصالح الإيرانيين ليرتفع تعداد المتطوعين ضمن منطقة غرب الفرات والجنوب السوري إلى أكثر من 14 ألف”, October 10, 2020. Available at: https://www.syriahr.com/عبر-السخاء-المادي-والوتر-الديني-عملي/402332/

 

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