Portents of a Regional Conflict in Southern Syria: Influential Powers and Likelihoods of Escalation

EPC | 19 Oct 2020

Southern Syria is witnessing a multi-layered conflict involving a number of sides. In spite of attempts by the parties concerned to manage the conflict in order to prevent it from spreading into a broader arena, the intensification of messages passing between the sides has begun to threaten the fragile arrangements in a geostrategically important region fraught with numerous contradictions.

This paper highlights the developments taking place in southern Syria, their dynamics, and the potential outcomes.

The current outlook in southern Syria: interactions and dynamics

The geographical location of southern Syria is at the root of the conflict in the region. Adjacent to both Israel and Jordan and extending into Lebanon over the Mount Hermon range, this region is regarded as the gateway to the countries of the Arabian Gulf via the Nasib Border Crossing. Its location has prompted many regional and international players to intervene in the ongoing conflict, as their security has been affected by military and security developments in this region.

Regional sensitivity was taken into account when drawing up the arrangements for southern Syria in 2018. Russia oversaw the process, in which it found itself forced to involve several other parties, including Jordan, Israel, and the United States. As part of these arrangements, Iran was enjoined to withdraw to a distance of 80 km from the Jordanian and Israeli borders; Russia was unable to enforce this, however, despite the announcement of Iran’s withdrawal from the area, and Iranian activities took on numerous forms. 

Russian arrangements have produced a security situation in the southern region which is markedly fragile, specifically in Daraa and Al-Quneitra. The conflict has transformed into a fight for control over security, drawing in a number of sides, both local and regional, as a result of the severe Russo–Iranian polarization among these parties and Israel’s constant surveillance of the movements of Iran’s militias and armaments within the buffer zone along its border with Daraa and Al-Quneitra.

In keeping with the agreements entered into with regional players, Russia was forced into arrangements with armed factions in Daraa, allowing some to retain their light arms and combat structures and preventing regime forces and Iranian militias from entering the areas controlled by these factions, in particular Daraa al-Balad and Tafas. Likewise, the Eighth Brigade was established under the Fifth Assault Corps in Busra al-Sham, led by the former commander of the “Sunni Youth” faction Ahmad al-Oda, to serve as a counterweight to Iranian militias in the region.

The situation is more nuanced in Al-Suwayda Governorate, a Sunni-majority area that is home to a Druze minority and is endangered by the presence of Islamic State encampments in desert areas along its borders. Dozens of factions and militias have been formed to defend the governorate; they have the last word on security matters, despite their differences in allegiance and level of authority. Several of them, such as the “Rijal al-Karama” (Men of Dignity) faction, are not on good terms with the Syrian regime and are calling for Al-Suwayda’s neutrality in the Syrian conflict, while a larger portion are affiliated to the Syrian security services. Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have likewise attracted a large number of militias affiliated with the pro-government militia known as the “National Defense Forces”.

This state of affairs has brought into being pockets beyond the reach of the regime which are simultaneously protected by Russian guarantees and Israeli surveillance. The regime and Iran have sought to circumvent this situation by attracting thousands of armed factions – referred to as “settlement elements” – through the regime’s agencies, in particular the Iran-allied air force intelligence and Fourth Division, in addition to Hezbollah-led efforts to recruit elements from among the Saraya Al-Areen 313 Brigades.[1]

Meanwhile, Ahmed al-Oda has been active in attracting young fighters, and has recently announced his intention to form a unified army for the Hawran region comprising more than 20,000 members under a single banner, dedicated to fighting the “enemies of the people”, namely Iran and Hezbollah.[2]

Map of control

There is an ongoing struggle for control over southern Syria, with each party to the conflict dominating specific areas:

  • Factions belonging to the opposition exercise total control over Daraa al-Balad and Tafas to the west of Daraa city, which are protected by Russian guarantee, with factions in these areas retaining their structures and light weapons.
  • The Eighth Brigade, affiliated to the Fifth Assault Corps and commanded by Ahmad al-Oda, controls Busra al-Sham and nearby areas.
  • Hezbollah controls some areas of Lajat and the eastern outskirts of Daraa through locally formed militias, which often engage in fierce clashes with al-Oda’s forces.[3]
  • Areas of northern Daraa near to Al-Quneitra (namely Al-Harah, Jasem, and Injal) are witnessing clashes between the Syrian Security Forces, supported by Hezbollah, and disbanded Syrian factions still active in those areas.[4]
  • The Fourth Division controls the countryside of west Daraa and the Yarmuk Basin, adjacent to Jordan and Israel. Hezbollah is also active in these areas.
  • The control of Al-Quneitra and the surrounding areas is divided between the Syrian regime forces, its security agencies, and Hezbollah, which has created local militias under its command.
  • Control of Al-Suwayda and its rural areas is divided between the regime’s agencies and local militias, especially the pro-Iran National Defense Forces and Hezbollah, and the anti-regime Rijal al-Karama.
  • All these formations operate within lines which broadly overlap, in the absence of a clear framework agreement to regulate movement. Agreements entered into by the parties are fragile and inconclusive, which is why the Syrian regime, supported locally by Iran and Hezbollah, is calling for absolute control to be imposed over these areas, which it sees as a part of the Syrian State. Meanwhile other parties, especially the militias in Al-Suwayda and the opposition factions in Daraa, are seeking some kind of autonomy over the areas under their control.
  • A fierce security war marked by an increasing number of assassinations has broken out in the south, due to the inability of any of the sides to pronounce a definitive victory (for the opposition, this is a result of its weakness, while the regime is hobbled by Russian agreements and Israeli surveillance). The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that more than 698 attacks and assassination attempts were carried out in Daraa between June 2019 and the end of September 2020, resulting in 460 deaths, including 126 civilians, 210 members of the government forces and armed elements loyal to them, 79 fighters belonging to factions responsible for “settlement and reconciliation” operations who had remained in the ranks of the regime’s security agencies, 23 members of Syrian militias affiliated to Hezbollah and Iranian forces, and 22 members of the Fifth Assault Corps.[5]

The status of actors and their positions

Russia: Management of internal conflict and regional equilibrium

Southern Syria is considered first and foremost to be Russia’s responsibility. It assumed responsibility for putting in place the current arrangements, which returned control over the area to the Assad regime, and for dismantling most of the region’s armed factions, as well as undertaking to enforce the withdrawal of Iran and its militias from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. On the strength of this responsibility, Russia occasionally intervenes in local issues, such as settling problems arising from arbitrary arrests or managing tensions between regime forces and former opposition groups.[6]

The regime, however, does not seem to welcome this Russian role, believing as it does that it is entitled to total control over the southern region. By the same token, Russia is accused by the opposition of forsaking its commitments and favoring the regime at the expense of assurances made to the opposition. At the same time, Israel has lost faith in Russia’s ability or desire to confront Iranian influence in southern Syria, and has therefore taken it into its own hands to target locations run by Iran and its militias, especially in areas around Al-Suwayda and Al-Quneitra.

Russia deals with this reality by regarding this state of affairs as the best it can achieve given the enormous differences in the positions and interests of the various players, and seeks to develop mechanisms with which to overcome such divisions and gain control over conflicts taking place in the region. One of the most important mechanisms is to enhance the effectiveness of the Fifth Assault Corps as a counterweight to regime forces and Iranian militias, in addition to continuous coordination with Israel in controlling its border with Syria.

The Assad regime: Continuing efforts to control the south

The Assad regime is trying to circumvent commitments imposed upon it by Russian. It is not comfortable with the status quo, in which Russia forms a buffer between itself and local communities in the south, seeking instead to manage its relationship with them directly through its own agencies and institutions. The regime also wants to feel the benefits – currently enjoyed entirely by Russa – of controlling the south and the advantage that this gives over Israel.

The regime operates through its agencies to infiltrate local groups by means of intermediaries, including former members of the Baath Party, retired officers, local notables, mayors, and State employees, such as former governors.[7] These intermediaries promote the idea that the regime, despite all its failings, is better than chaos, given the lack of alternatives. For its part, the regime tries to shore up its legitimacy in the region by providing services to local groups and restoring electricity, water, and fuel supplies, although it is limited in its power to do so by Syria’s ongoing economic crisis.

At the same time, the regime is imposing strict military and security control over areas not subject to Russian guarantees in which the Fourth Division and its security agencies are deployed. It is also seeking to take advantage of the Russian–Iranian conflict to build its military presence and its influence.

Iran: Playing on local disagreements

Pressure from Russia, coupled with permanent Israeli surveillance and Jordanian objections to ongoing Iranian deployment, have pushed Iran to search for new ways to enhance its influence in southern Syria, each of which carry their own risks and the potential to lead to escalation:

  • Iran is attempting to attract former opposition faction leaders in the villages of eastern Hawran, which it is then supporting with money and weapons to create military units with allegiance to Iran and Hezbollah. Although these units are still small, their intensive deployment and Iran’s ability to finance them augurs their potential transformation into a force capable of threatening the area’s stability. Their main focus would appear to be forces affiliated to Ahmad al-Oda, which have recently been the target of an increasing number of bombings and assassinations. This has prompted al-Oda to demand the removal of Iran and its militias from Hawran altogether.[8]
  • Playing the Sunni–Druze sectarian card, Iran is encouraging Druze militias, led by the National Defense Forces, to target Ahmad al-Oda’s forces and to kidnap and arrest individuals from Daraa. More than 15 people were killed in the latest round of fighting between these two sides, at the border between Busra al-Sham in Daraa and villages in Al-Suwayda. Iran’s main aim is to retake Busra al-Sham, which it considers to be “the biggest Shiite stronghold in Daraa”.[9]

Israel: Driving out the Iranian presence

 Israel is not considered to be directly involved in southern Syria, due to its lack of local resources and direct presence on the ground. Nonetheless, it is making its presence felt through implicit agreements with Russia, which require the removal of Iran and its militias from areas near the Israeli border; it would appear, however, that Russia and Israel are yet to arrive at an all-encompassing definition of what constitutes an Iranian presence. Furthermore, Iran has exploited this problem by diversifying its presence in various ways:

  • Certain militias, such as the Imam Hussein Brigade, have been merged with the Fourth Division. Residents of the Yarmouk Basin have revealed the presence of Hezbollah elements among the ranks of the Fourth Division forces in their areas, which are directly contiguous with the Golan borders, and specifically in Camp al-Jazeera, which has recently been targeted by Israel.[10]
  • Iran has established militias of local men, run by Hezbollah, in areas in close proximity to Daraa and Al-Quneitra.
  • Confronted with this state of affairs, Israel feels that it has been released from any obligations towards Russia in southern Syria, and is instead attempting to remove security risks by launching attacks on positions within Daraa, Al-Quneitra and Al-Suwayda. However, these raids seemed to have done little to achieve their goals. Iran considers these losses bearable in the interest of pursuing its expansionist strategies in southern Syria and becoming a major player in this strategically important region.

Turning point in the Russo–Iranian conflict

The battle of Al-Suwayda, which broke out in late September between Iranian-backed militias and the Fifth Assault Corps, considered to be Russia’s main military resource in Syria, represents a turning point in the conflict between Russia and Iran in southern Syria, where direct clashes have been taking place between their proxy forces. Previously, the conflict had taken the form of effective covert operations and was restricted mainly to bombings and assassinations.

This shift has a number of implications, the most important of which is Iran’s desire to complicate matters for Russia in the south and to make it understand that its removal as a party to the conflict will be difficult; Iran is keen to send Russia the message that it is firmly embedded in the region’s social fabric and is able to torpedo Russia’s arrangements in southern Syria. The main motive behind Iran’s behavior is one of anger at Russian actions, which aim to constrain Iranian influence not only in southern Syria, but also in the eastern and central parts of the country. Iran also opposes what it regards as Russia’s collusion with Israel in allowing it to strike at Iranian bases and installations in southern Syria. Added to this is Russia’s siding with Sunnis in Hawran at the expense of the Shiites, and its acquiescence at their expulsion from Busra al-Sham.

For its part, Russia has allowed the Fifth Assault Corps – which is better organized and better armed than the Iranian militias – to attack Iranian allies. Iran sees these actions as deliberate, as Russia had the power to restrain its proxies and could have prevented them from crushing the National Defense Forces in the battle for Al-Qarya in Al-Suwayda Governorate.[11]

What happened in Al-Suwayda is unlikely to end there, and might well develop into a war between the neighboring governorates of Daraa and Al-Suwayda, given the state of high alert among both communities. The Druze, of whatever political stripe, have rallied firmly behind their armed factions. Similarly, Ahmad al-Oda has become a lodestar, attracting broad swathes of Daraa society concerned at the Iranian presence, who would rather cooperate with the Russians and their agents to expel Iran and its militias from southern Syria.[12]

Conclusions

It is unlikely that conditions in southern Syria will change for the better in the foreseeable future. Most indicators point to continued escalation between the different sides and to the prospect of future outbreaks of violence, given the Syrian government’s insistence, seconded by Iran and Hezbollah, on changing the game plan drawn up by Russia. Meanwhile, opposition factions and the Russian-backed Fifth Assault Corps are openly resisting and refusing to relinquish what they see as a right awarded to them in settlements drawn up by the international and regional powers. These parties also regard themselves a legitimate force, thanks to the support that they enjoy from broad segments of southern Syrian society.

Although escalation is expected to continue, there is little chance that it will get out of hand, especially among external actors, since Iran would prefer to pursue a policy of peaceful infiltration – a policy at which it is adept and from which it benefits – in its bid to wear down the other players and change their priorities. Likewise, the Assad regime is betting on its ability to erode the strength of the opposition in the south and bring about its gradual collapse, pressured by the need of local communities for services which only the State can provide. This will not, however, prevent occasional violent clashes from occurring whenever one of the parties – primarily Iran – finds itself blockaded by others that pose a threat to its interests and influence.

There is little likelihood of a regional war breaking out between Israel and Iran, due to the lack of a visible Iranian presence and Iran’s unwillingness to take on Israel directly. Instead, Israeli strikes will likely continue intermittently at locations where there is a suspected presence of Iranian activities.

The question of conflict between the governorates of Daraa and Al-Suwayda remains the most pressing danger, given the tribal nature and sectarian differences of these communities. In all likelihood, the patterns of retaliation and escalation between them are likely to predominate, given that other sides to the conflict have a vested interest in the continuation of such disputes; as the Assad regime is counting on exploiting the dispute between the governorates in order to reclaim its lost influence, so also is Iran counting on it to undermine the Sunnis and eliminate Ahmad al-Oda and his forces.[13]

References

[1] Samir al-Sa’adi, “اللواء 313" والتدخل اﻹيراني في درعا”, Al-Modon, November 11, 2017.

[2] “درعا.. "أحمد العودة" يعلن عن تشكيل عسكري في منطقة حوران”, Baladi News, June 23, 2020.

[3] “حرب حزب الله على أهل "حوران".. مواجهة مواربة للقوة الروسية”, 24, June 21, 2020.

[4] “بالخرائط.. مواقع إيران وحزب الله شمال درعا”, Nabaa Media Foundation, May 8, 2020.

[5] “صراع روسي-إيراني جنوب سوريا... و"سيطرة ظاهرية" للنظام”, Asharq Al-Awsat, October 4, 2020.

[6] Armenak Tokmajyan, “How Southern Syria Has Been Transformed Into a Regional Powder Keg”, Carnegie Middle East Center, July 14, 2020.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “درعا تحت التسوية التوصيف والسيناريوهات الممكنة”, Jusoor for Studies, May 11, 2020.

[9] “أحمد العودة يتّهم إيران بإشعال الفتنة بين درعا والسويداء”, Television Syria, October 3, 2020.

[10] “مروحيات إسرائيلية تقصف ريف درعا”, Enab Baladi, May 1, 2020.

[11] Sawsana Mehanna, “تصفية حسابات روسية-إيرانية في محافظتي السويداء ودرعا السوريتين”, Independent Arabia, October 9, 2020.

[12] Tokmajyan, “How Southern Syria Has Been Transformed”.

[13] “جنوب سوريا.. "نزاع بين الأشقاء" أم عنف مدبر؟”, Orient Net, tr. Zayn al-Hamdi, October 8, 2020.

 

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