The Fall of the Rebel Stronghold in Syria

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

Views from the Region

July 10, 2018

The fall of the Syrian city of Dara’a to Russian-backed Syrian government forces is considered by many to be one of the last chapters of the Syrian civil war. While Syria is likely to experience violence and instability for some time to come, last week’s agreement to move rebel forces out of Dara’a only further cements the Syrian president’s hold. Some regional observers have expressed concern over the safety of the civilians and rebel fighters, while others are already looking ahead to the geopolitical ramifications of the return of Syrian government forces to the Israeli border.

The inevitability of the defeat of the rebel forces in Dara’a was already made obvious in the days leading to the conflict, as various editorials, including this one from Gulf News, turned their attention to the plight of the civilians in the aftermath of the rebel loss rather than appealing for more military support: “Over the years of standing against the regime, Dara’a had become a stopping-off point and a redoubt of relief for the hundreds of thousands of Syrians who have fled the south, crossing the border into Jordan…. What is alarming is the depressing knowledge that we have been through all of this before — the fighting, the suffering, the tears, death and destruction. The rebel forces are in no position to help as they face a near-certain demise, save for some miraculous intervention. Regime forces feel no compunction to help, intent only on defeating its enemy and claiming a final pyrrhic victory.”

As the fighting has intensified the number of refugees has swelled, with many making their way to the borders of Jordan and Israel. And yet, as Abdulrahman Al-Rashed points out in this Asharq Al-Awsat op-ed, few organizations appear ready or willing to help: “The current wave of refugees should not come as a surprise as it is a result of the new war in Daraa which was planned for weeks and paved the way for the regime forces to move to the South to prevent the presence of Iranian forces and militias there. International organizations and governments could have developed preemptive solutions to the hundreds of thousands of refugees who are expected to flee the combat zones, but, they did not, perhaps because they did not want to encourage people to leave their towns. Despite their efforts, they were left with the same problem where more than a million people will be left to helplessly wander the country’s plains and mountains.”

 Arab News’s Baria Alamuddin takes a long-term view on the consequences of the fighting and considers the impact that such violence is likely to have on children and therefore the region’s future: “This short-sighted approach is fueling a time-bomb: A generation has endured a childhood of horrors and minimal schooling. We should not expect these disaffected youths to smoothly reintegrate into normal life — if there ever is a return to normality. This underskilled and traumatized generation is the perfect breeding ground for extremism…. Assad and Tehran today enjoy the impunity conferred by global disinterest. Yet evidence quietly accumulates from prisons of extermination and chemical atrocities, ready for that moment — whether in five or 50 years — when inevitable bouts of change sweep the ground from beneath their feet.”

That potential for a humanitarian crisis at the border may be why Jordan Times’s Amer Al Sabaileh argues for a more conciliatory approach between Jordan and Syria: “The fighting in the south of Syria has been expected for some time and could be the final chapter of the ongoing crisis there. Jordan continues to face multi-dimensional risks from the refugees to security, and the danger of continuous military confrontation on its border…. Reopening channels of dialogue with Damascus is not a luxury and must be done independently of other powers. It must be managed bilaterally in order to protect Jordan’s security and political interests as violence and chaos is heading south towards the border and the power equilibrium has shifted to the Syrian army. Diplomatic engagement and understanding with Syria and Russia is the key for Jordan to be able to play a role in the stabilization of the border region.”

It is revealing, perhaps, that most regional observers, including those in Israel, have now come to acknowledge and, in some cases, openly embrace the involvement of Russia in Syria and the region more broadly. For example, in an op-ed for Al Arabiya, Ali Al-Amin perhaps somewhat provocatively states that in Syria, “Russia has given Israel what the U.S. could not…. Russia has been successful in convincing Iran and its militias to adhere to the requirements of Israeli security…. The Russian-Israeli relationship has not witnessed cooperation to the extent seen in recent years. No Israeli official has expressed any concern over the Russian role in Syria and all factors point to the fact that Russia has become a highly respected state by the Israeli government. This respect and relationship are now in competition with the close relationship of Tel Aviv and Washington. Putin expects that his friend, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plays a vital role in softening the position of Trump on issues related to ending or decreasing sanctions against Russia, as well as softening the US intervention in the vital Russian sphere.”

The perception that Russia’s role in Syria has been overall positive from an Israeli perspective is evidenced by Israeli commentator Ron Ben Yishai, who, in a recent op-ed for Yedioth Ahronoth, suggested that “From Israel’s point of view, the new situation created in southern Syria holds several consequences, not all of them necessarily negative. One of them is the fact that only small forces of Hezbollah and Shi’ite Iraqi militias sent by Iran took part in the conquering of Daraa and the villages surrounding it. The militia and Hezbollah fighters who did take part in the campaign were dressed in Syrian army uniforms, but did not operate as part of the army’s divisions, rather as small cells and teams sent into action when the need arose for certain expertise. Their small numbers show the Russians were attentive to Israel’s demands and warnings, and demanded the Iranians to have minimal involvement in the proper fighting. And the same applies to Hezbollah’s presence in the fighting areas.”

For Jerusalem Post’s Seth Frantzman, the rebel defeat in Dara’a signals the beginning of a new era in Syria, one that is likely to raise more questions than provide answers: “In some ways the defeat of the rebels in southern Syria marks the end of the Syrian conflict. The civil war began with protests in Dera’a. The rebels are either defeated, or have ended up under Turkish protection in the north. But a new round is beginning: the fight over the post-conflict era of Syria. That is a complex struggle involving the US and Turkey, but it also involves Israel. And for Jerusalem the main questions are whether Damascus will come out stronger or Iran will come out more of the winner in southern Syria, and what the Russian role will be. If the rebel deal near Dera’a succeeds, the regime will set its sights on the Golan border area and all of these questions will take on greater importance.”

  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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