South Syria -- A Dangerous Flash Point

South Syria, a region bordering with Jordan and Israel, was the quietest of all Israel’s borders from 1974 until the outbreak of the Syrian civil war in 2011. This was in line with the Alawite-oriented regional policy which characterized Syria of the two Assads. Rousing rhetoric about Israel, but not anything which could trigger a full-scale war with Israel, which could ruin the Syrian army and with it, the Alawite community. At the same time, the regime meddled in Lebanon, exactly because it understood the situation there to be an immediate possible challenge to the Alawites in Syria. So far so good, but the Achilles heel of the concept from an Israeli perspective was, that precisely because of the inherent illegitimacy of the minoritarian regime in Syria, it had to rely on Iran as a rainy day final backer, and was afraid to accept the most generous Israeli territorial concessions in the Golan, in order to achieve final peace between the two countries. In fact, the events of 2011 on wards have proved the current Assad to be right. He would have lost his regime long time ago, if not, chiefly, but not only, due to the Iranian support. However, something else has been proved since 2011-the inability of the regime to exert full control even on a region so close to the Capital Damascus on the one hand, and the sensitive borders with Israel and Jordan, on the other hand. So, as of 2011, the region has become the wild South.

Dar’a in the South became the first town to rebel against the yoke of the Assad-Alawite regime. First, the office of the cell phone company, controlled by Rami Makhlouf, Bashar Assad’s cousin, then the statute of Hafiz Assad were ransacked. The town, as well as the area altogether suffered from severe drought which was compounded by the lack of any water projects there. This could be solved if Assad had peace with Israel, but that was not the case. After six years of fighting, the South today is a mirror image of Syria at large. Here is, in a nutshell, the military map there; 14-15 factions of the Sunni rebels, among them the Free Syria Army [FSA], elements of ISIS, local Druze militia composed mainly of former Druze soldiers of the Syrian army who defected in order to defend their own houses and communities, local militias loyal to Bashar Assad as well as armored, artillery and infantry forces of his Alawite army and very little presence of pro-Iranian, Hizballah, most of whom withdrew from the region recently. This hodge podge of forces indicate the atomization of society in Syria in general, and the primacy of sectarian loyalties over state, national loyalty. The chaos in the South has been a pressing problem for Jordan, particularly due to the proximity of ISIS elements, but more so due to the influx of refugees to the poor kingdom. We talk here about 700, 000 refugees , possibly more. Also, the proximity to Israel, and the occasional attacks on the Israeli Golan. The Israelis demarcated their own unofficial, but clear red lines there, among others also with the Russians, whose air force in Syria does NOT fly over South Syria. However, the overall conditions in the South are very fragile, and this is the basis for a wave of ,as yet, unverified reports about an imminent attack on what is left of Assad’s army in the South, as well as the ISIS presence there, by a Sunni rebel force, trained in Jordan, and assisted by the US. According to these reports, the goal of such an attack would be to create a Western-controlled cordon sanitaire in a very sensitive area, and in particular, enable Jordan to send back to Syria most of the refugees which have become an unbearable burden. On paper, a simple plan with high chance of success. Assad’s army in the South is weak, Damascus is very close, and so an effective bargaining card against him to be held by his opponents for the case of future political settlement. Russia may find it out of its scope of immediate interests in Syria, Jordan and Israel will rid themselves of potential subversive elements on their borders and in the case of the former, no refugees.

That said, this all can very well be a dangerous illusion and trap. In Syria, there is always the day after. Who will rule the area, provide for the needs of the people and prevent sectarian violence, for example between Druze and Sunnis? Here is a word of caution from this blog-a lot of the possible advantages of a full-blown attack on South Syria can be attained while evading the obvious disadvantages which are most likely to happen. Syria has an habit of drawing external powers to intervene in its affairs, but then also comes the inevitable quagmire. Exit strategy is a text book lexicon, but in reality can be a nightmare. Even more so, if the planned visit by President Trump in Israel , maybe other countries in the Middle East will take place in the next few weeks.