As Assad Turns to Syria’s Southwest, Washington Faces a Choice
The United States faces a critical decision in southwestern Syria. For weeks, Syrian military forces have been massing on the northern edge of the mostly opposition-held “de-escalation zone” jointly negotiated last year by the United States, Russia, and Jordan. With this deal, Washington secured a ceasefire for this geopolitically sensitive corner of the country, which borders Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. Since then, however, the Trump administration has pursued a broader Syria policy that serves the southwest poorly and undercuts the de-escalation agreement.
A Syrian military offensive on the southwest now seems imminent. Clashes broke out on the area’s eastern edge on Tuesday, and the Syrian military bombed rebel-held towns from the air, an unambiguous breach of the de-escalation agreement. Time is short. Still, there may still be a chance for an alternative. In our latest report at the International Crisis Group, Keeping the Calm in Southern Syria, we urge all sides – the de-escalation agreement’s three sponsors as well as, indirectly, Israel and the Syrian government – to broker a deal to prevent a bloody fight for the southwest.
For the Trump administration, that means it has to choose: Will it deal with the southwest on the area’s own terms, helping to spare civilian life and promoting the interests of Jordan and Israel, two close allies? Or will it fail to engage seriously in negotiations and allow events to take a more brutal course, one that crushes the southwestern opposition, rends the area’s remaining social fabric, and squanders whatever terms and guarantees Washington and its allies might have been able to negotiate in advance?
The Terms and Logic of De-Escalation
Then-U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson announced the de-escalation ceasefire on July 7, 2017, following U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin’s first in-person meeting at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The three sponsors of the de-escalation deal further agreed in August to establish a joint monitoring center in Amman. In November, they finalized the agreement’s terms with a “memorandum of principles.” Trump and Putin announced the agreement, lending it their personal imprimatur. Along the edge of the de-escalation zone, the deal established a buffer area that would exclude Iranian-backed foreign militias supporting the Syrian government, with a concomitant commitment to eventually expel jihadists inside the de-escalation zone. The text of the original ceasefire agreement and the de-escalation agreement’s memorandum of principles have not been released publicly.
The de-escalation agreement froze the Syrian civil war in the southwestern provinces of Dara’a and al-Quneitra. The war’s southern front had been mostly dormant since Russia’s September 2015 intervention in Syria, which prompted Jordan to cut a bilateral deal with Russia to keep calm in Syria’s south. Intense fighting broke out in Dara’a’s eponymous provincial capital in the months before the de-escalation ceasefire was announced last July. Since then, however, the ceasefire has mostly held, with only a handful of exceptions.
The sponsors of the de-escalation agreement discussed expanding the size of the buffer area, but higher-level trilateral negotiations faltered late last year. The Amman-based ceasefire monitoring center has continued to meet, but any expansion of the buffer zone and other substantive developments to the de-escalation agreement are the province of trilateral political talks among the United States, Russia, and Jordan. Those talks last convened in November 2017 – and since then, the agreement has been on autopilot.
U.S. interests in southwestern Syria are basically derived from those of its regional allies, Jordan and Israel. Jordan has feared a resumption of armed conflict that could send a new wave of refugees towards its border and empower jihadists and Iranian-backed militias. Jihadists in the southwest, including Hayat Tahrir al-Sham and the Islamic State, are relatively few in number and geographically limited in their reach. If war returned to the south, however, these fighters could take on renewed relevance as they spearhead armed resistance against the Syrian military. As for Israel, its concerns revolve more specifically around Iran’s presence, both near the Golan and nationwide across Syria.
The southwest is critically important to an ongoing struggle between Israel and Iran over the nature and duration of Iran’s presence in Syria, a regional conflict that has run parallel to the country’s civil war. The intervention of Iran and Hizballah in defense of their Syrian ally has given them a political prominence and military role in Syria with no precedent prior to the 2011 uprising. Israel has become convinced that Iran’s expanded presence risks upsetting the two countries’ tenuous deterrent balance across the region and has declared it will not allow Iran to establish a lasting strategic military presence in Syria. It has outlined a set of “red lines” that, if crossed, would prompt Israeli military action. These red lines include Iranian-backed militias taking up offensive positions in the southwest, opposite the occupied Golan. Israel has attempted to establish its red lines with an escalating series of strikes against what it alleges are Iranian or Iranian-linked targets in Syria. These strikes have recently come dangerously close to escalating into open interstate war.
The ceasefire and buffer zone established by the de-escalation agreement were meant to serve both Jordanian and Israeli security needs. Israel was not a participant in the de-escalation talks, but it was briefed throughout on the negotiations and has robust bilateral relationships with all three of the deal’s sponsors. Israeli leaders have nonetheless voiced discontent about the agreement and about the width of the buffer. Within the limited buffer, Israeli defense official told my organization in March that most Hizballah fighters had left and “only a handful” remained. A senior Hizballah official denied the existence of a buffer and rejected the notion that the group was obliged to withdraw its forces.
America’s Syria Policy and an Endangered De-Escalation
The de-escalation agreement was meant to be not just a ceasefire, but also the basis for a more complete, evolving deal in the rebel-held southwest. Yet the Trump administration’s shifting policy has undermined the de-escalation deal, and, since last fall, prevented negotiated progress to advance the agreement.
U.S. Syria policy over the past year has involved a series of decisions with little relation to the southwest, each of which has worked against the de-escalation agreement. First, as de-escalation negotiations were ongoing last summer, Washington made the apparently unrelated decision to end covert support for Syrian rebels, including arms and salaries. Regardless of the merits of that decision, it threatened the cohesion of southwestern “Southern Front” rebels and whatever military balance underpinned the ceasefire.
Then the Trump administration adopted a new Syria strategy in late 2017, which Tillerson laid out publicly in January 2018. That strategy took a confrontational approach to Damascus, pressing for the removal of President Bashar al-Assad by denying the Syrian government access to large sections of the country beyond its current control and by starving it of economic resources, including normal trade with Syria’s neighbors. The administration’s new Syria strategy led it to veto the reopening of the Nasib border crossing between Jordan and Syria to commercial traffic. The de-escalation agreement’s sponsors had considered reopening Nasib an outcome of a successful de-escalation, and one that Jordan desperately needed to revive its struggling economy. With a U.S. Syria strategy aimed at unseating Russia’s ally in Damascus, there was little of substance for Washington and Moscow to discuss and trilateral meetings dried up.
The de-escalation agreement was also meant to be underwritten by an influx of stabilization assistance to support governance and services and restore some normality to the rebel-held southwest, led by the United States and the United Kingdom. The Trump administration’s abrupt decision to freeze stabilization aid in March again undercut the de-escalation agreement and left both Jordan and the British hanging. Trump’s announcement that the United States would withdraw its troops from Syria further confused U.S. allies. The United States has no forces on the ground inside the southwest, but the news nonetheless alarmed U.S. allies and raised doubts about Washington’s commitment in Syria.
Besides Israel, the agreement had another silent partner: the Syrian government in Damascus. With no prospects for further developing the de-escalation deal and satisfying Damascus’ own political needs, it had limited incentive to let the rebel-held southwest alone after it finished off the last opposition enclaves elsewhere. Now those enclaves are gone.
“We’ve now headed south,” Assad told an interviewer this month. “We’re giving space for the political process; if it doesn’t succeed, there will be no choice but liberation by force.”
Militarily speaking, the rebel-held southwest seems unlikely to be a difficult target to capture for the Syrian army, particularly if Russia provides air support for an offensive. Rebel territory can be cut at a few key junctures and then defeated in pieces. The government has also been engaging in talks with rebel-held towns across the southwest to make sure they don’t act when the Syrian military marches south.
The main deterrent to a Syrian military offensive had been the danger that the involvement of Iranian-backed militias would set off Israeli intervention. That meant an offensive posed a real danger to Damascus and might have discouraged crucial involvement by Russia, which has invested in its relationships with both Israel and Jordan. Yet Damascus can muster newly mobile Syrian forces, after its victories elsewhere, and energetic Russian diplomacy may have neutralized the risk of Israeli action. According to news reports and Israeli officials who spoke to my organization, Israel and Russia have arrived at a preliminary understanding on the return of the Syrian state to the southwest, conditional on the exclusion of Iranian-backed elements from that area and Israel’s continued freedom to strike inside Syria. Israel prefers the continuation of the de-escalation agreement, Israeli officials tell my organization, but if a Russian-backed Syrian offensive is coming, Israel can hardly afford not to coordinate with Russia. Iranian officials have publicly voiced support for Russia’s efforts to restore Syrian state control in the southwest and said Iran will not participate in an offensive, while also rejecting the idea of withdrawing entirely from Syria, per Israel’s latest demands. Whether Moscow, Damascus, or any party can promise to sustainably keep Iranian elements out of the southwest is unclear.
The U.S. State Department has warned Damascus against violating the de-escalation agreement and repeatedly promised “firm and appropriate measures.” But there is no indication of what that entails, or even if that language is backed by an actual threat. The U.S. government previously told rebels that if the Syrian military attacked, it would “do everything in [its] ability” to preserve the ceasefire – a reassurance that rebels told the International Crisis Group they found ambiguous and underwhelming.
One Chance for a Negotiated Alternative
Barring some surprise development, the Syrian government is coming south. Yet there are different ways the Syrian state can return to what is now the rebel-held southwest. No side – least of all Washington’s regional allies – is well-served by a chaotic, deadly fight for the south. The United States has a compelling interest in negotiating a settlement that avoids open war and mitigates the harm to the southwest’s residents and Syria’s neighbors.
It will have to act fast, though. In our latest report, we at the International Crisis Group argue for the de-escalation agreement’s sponsors re-convene through its trilateral mechanism to preserve the ceasefire and negotiate an evolution of the deal.
As an interim step, the de-escalation agreement’s sponsors should adopt a Jordanian proposal to shift the agreement’s focus to a “stabilization zone.” Stabilization would mean new steps toward the institutional and economic integration of the rebel southwest into its Syrian government-held surroundings – including trade both cross-line and cross-border through a Nasib crossing returned to Syrian state control – and draw in a broader set of international stakeholders, including Russia. The result would hopefully reassure the Syrian government and Russia that negotiated progress is possible and forestall a military attack.
From there, all sides would need to work from the existing de-escalation agreement to negotiate a more complete settlement in the southwest. The basic outlines are clear: the return of the Syrian state to the southwest and the Syrian military to Syria’s borders; a zone parallel to the Golan Heights free of Iranian-backed groups; and the restoration of Syria and Israel’s 1974 Separation of Forces Agreement, including the return of U.N. observers to their positions.
Beyond that, the details of an agreement are up for negotiation – whether it entails the entrance of only the Syrian state’s less controversial civilian institutions or, if that proves unworkable, then at least preferential terms for the southwest’s “reconciliation” and surrender.
Many southern rebels will resist any deal. But a negotiated resolution is better than a crushing military defeat at the hands of the Syrian military and the Russian air force, followed by unforgiving, prejudicial surrender deals that rip out large sections of the southwest’s clan-based society and expel southerners to Syria’s rebel-held north. Southern Syrians are better served by a deal that spares pointless bloodshed and preserves their tightly knit social fabric by keeping southern communities intact, preventing social breakdown that encourages crime, radicalism, and recruitment by Iranian-linked elements. Syria’s neighbors are better served, too. So is America.
The United States has privately signaled it will not object to Israeli and Jordanian deal-making for the south but has scaled back its own participation in negotiations.
This is a mistake. With no comprehensive deal for the southwest, a wrenching military conclusion is the alternative and, for everyone, a worse outcome. Jordan and Israel may be able to engage with Russia to minimally “de-conflict” a Syrian offensive and protect themselves. Yet they are highly unlikely to secure the sort of terms they could with Washington on their side, as part of an agreement with consensual, international approval and the sort of legitimacy that only Washington’s endorsement could provide. At this point, anything short of this seems unlikely to dissuade Damascus. If the United States hopes to achieve something better than “de-confliction,” it urgently needs to engage in talks and to make a special effort for the southwest.
And whatever the United States decides to do, it will also need to communicate that decision clearly. Threats of “firm and appropriate measures” may make Damascus think twice, but they also seem likely to confuse southern rebels about the extent of America’s commitment and encourage them to fight a lonely, doomed defensive battle.
Syria’s southwest matters. If the United States is going to protect its interests and the interests of its closest regional allies in this corner of Syria’s war, it needs to invest in talks and produce a solution specifically for the southwest – for the southwest’s sake and for America’s.
Sam Heller is International Crisis Group’s Senior Analyst on Non-State Armed Groups, as part of the organization’s work on Jihad in Modern Conflict. He has researched and written about the Syrian war since 2013 and is based in Beirut. Follow Sam on Twitter: @AbuJamajem.
Image: Syrian Arab News Agency