If there was ever any doubt about the dominance of the Assad regime and its allies in the Syrian War the current offensive against opposition forces in the southern region of the Daraa governorate demonstrates the brutal truth that the government is winning its war. As hundreds of thousands of people flee towards the Jordanian border a pattern common to the offensives launched this year is being continued: the application of overwhelming force that compels rebels to acquiesce to piecemeal negotiated surrenders. The only thing that will stop it is outside intervention and there are no indications that this is coming. As has often been the case in Syria’s war, effective direct intervention only takes place if it serves the interests of the intervener.
The fall of Daraa to the regime will be another heavy blow to its opponents and also mean the demise of the Southern Front, an alliance of rebel groups allegedly backed by Jordan and the US and other gulf allies. It has been seen as the last hope for the ‘moderate’ opposition and had launched its own offensive against the government in 2017. Should the regime succeed in taking Daraa the opposition will lose the symbolic ‘cradle of the revolution’, where the protests against the Assad regime began after security forces arrested, tortured and killed young boys after they scrawled anti-regime graffiti. The current offensive is not done, but is likely to succeed, and has been subject to pauses while the rebel groups negotiate their surrender. Failure to do so results in continued bombardment until an agreement is reached and in the past these have meant a choice between forced relocation to Idlib province in the north or risking an offer to give up heavy weapons and stay when a vengeful government takes control.
Despite concerns that a government offensive in the south would trigger an intervention by the US, Jordan or Israel, this has not happened. We cannot know what is happening behind the scenes in the murky and secretive world of diplomacy but we can observe events on the ground. Key concerns for Israel and Jordan are their own security, for Israel it is the presence of Iranian proxies in the region, for Jordan the weight of refugees fleeing the fighting and the security of its border. It is highly likely that Israel has been given guarantees, brokered by Russia, that forces linked to Iran will not remain in the region, which will be garrisoned in the future by the Syrian Arab Army or local defence forces. Jordan is already host to over 1.3 million Syrians and despite strict border controls faces an influx from the estimated 250-330,000 refugees that are fleeing the current fighting. Unless Jordan is given support in providing aid to its refugee population, which also includes Palestinians from earlier crises, then the border will remain closed. The global and regional powers have an opportunity to step up and ensure that such support is provided and that it continues. This won’t resolve the issue of the violence in Syria, but it will mitigate the consequences of the fighting and provide much needed support for Jordan. Many words have been written about the consequences of Syria’s war and what should be done about it, but providing support to refugees is a moral necessity and doesn’t involve taking a side or deploying one’s own military.
The concerns of Israel and Jordan aside, the Daraa offensive will rumble on and is likely to be another success for the government and its allies in a war in which the cold realism of strategic necessity has become the norm. Securing the south will have the same tragic consequences as elsewhere, the airstrikes have been ramped up, hospitals and civilians are being hit, as is the case in every aerial bombardment, and pauses take place only to allow for the piecemeal surrender of rebel groups. The regime doesn’t control the south yet, but it almost certain that it will unless there is an intervention on behalf of the rebels, which regional strategic concerns will ultimately prevent as no one wants to be dragged into the quagmire of a wider war.
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Dr Carl Turner, Site Coordinator