- A new wave of regime airstrikes across Deraa could mean war for southern Syria
- The re-openining of the southern frontlines could pit Israeli and Iranian proxy groups against each other
- The Syrian civil war may mutate into an even more intractable proxy conflict
- Those worst affected will inevitably be the Syrian civilians trapped between powerful armed groups
By Ty Joplin
Renewed airstrikes on rebel-held positions in southern Syria could mean the opening of yet another front in the ongoing war in Syria.
What sets this potential new front apart from the ongoing Turkish operations in Afrin, or the nearly concluded besiegement of Eastern Ghouta are the players involved. Specifically, Israel and Iran. Both countries have vested interests in southern Syria and are supporting local militias on the ground in the quest to cement a foothold in the region.
An escalation in the Syrian war into Deraa and Quneitra provinces could pit Israeli and Iranian-backed forces against each other, making for a dangerous face-off for regional power inside a country that is weary with eight years of war.
An airstrike hits in Deraa on March 30, 2018 (Nabaa Media)
The Assad regime’s new wave of airstrikes hit in the southern Syrian area of Lajat, and come amidst a general rise in tensions between the regime and opposition forces, who have both been largely compliant with a de-escalation zone agreement meant to minimize violence in the region.
In mid-March of this year, Assad launched a series of airstrikes against rebel-held positions around Deraa, apparently intended to deter a rebel-led offensive.
"We were starting an operation, and we had not announced zero hour, and the regime preempted us," a rebel commander in the FSA told a Reuters reporter.
In the days after, thousands of Syrians began fleeing from the frontlines separating opposition and regime troops, fearing that southern Syria would once again be immersed in all-out war.
“There was a lot of talk among civilians about a military operation,” relayed Alaa Sadqa, a resident of the western Daraa town of Ibtaa. “We grew more and more scared.”
Another resident told Syria Direct, “we were told that leaving town would be best for us and our safety.”
The displacement also coincided with reports surfacing that government troops had begun reinforcing their positions along the frontlines in the Deraa province.
Taken as a whole, it appears both sides are preparing for a new round of fighting, which had been on hold since the summer, when the de-escalation agreements were initially signed and enforced.
But since the summer, Israeli and Iranian interests have become cemented in the region, with more militias being supplied by each side. As proxy groups, any confrontation between them means that Israeli and Iranian power will also be pitted against one another.
In other words, a military confrontation between Israel and Iran is looking more likely by the day.
An Israeli tank near the Golan Heights (AFP/FILE)
In late January, it was found that Israeli plans were being laid out to push 40 kilometers into Syria. In other words, Israel has been working to cement de facto control over large swathes of southern Syria, a move that Israel has a history of deploying to gain a foothold in territories and other countries in the name of national security.
An Israeli army’s chief spoke in defense of the initiative: “We’re pursuing several different avenues to prevent Iranian entrenchment within 30-40 km of the border… We want to get to a point where there is no Iranian influence in Syria, and this is being done in a combined military and diplomatic effort.”
Although Israel has a history of occupying the Golan Heights, its expansion into Deraa and Quinetra includes more than just a strengthened military presence. Their initiative has entailed building lasting partnerships with opposition leaders, civil society organizations, non-profits, health officials and even work educational and agricultural professionals. This is what led one anonymous rebel commander to tell The Intercept that there are some rebel factions “who are now completely in Israel’s pocket.”
Israel’s plan to expand its influence in Syria (Rami Khoury/Al Bawaba)
For Iran’s side, they have been hard at work to establish a singular, uninterrupted line of influence and trade from Tehran to the Mediterranean sea.
One notable example of an Iranian-backed militia is Brigade 313, which is reportedly based out of the Deraa province. The group is officially pro-government, funded by Iran’s own clandestine military called the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and often works in conjunction with the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia.
Brigade 313 can bee seen as a way for Iran to exert local military power in southern Syria, and will likely be used against Israeli-backed opposition troops in the event of a head-on confrontation.
Iran has been working discreetly to build logistical centers throughout Syria and has clustered a number of their operations near the Golan Heights. Challenging the power of Israel is one of their priorities. Likewise, it is a priority for Israel to make sure that any Iranian foothold near its borders is destroyed.
Map showing Iranian positions inside Syria. Points include headquarters, logistical nodes, drone control rooms, training centers, and other related sites. Does not include temporary front-line positions (New York Times, Institute for the Study of War)
Both Israel and Iran have recently demonstrated their willingness to escalate the conflict. Iran sent a drone into Israeli airspace before Israel bombed several Iranian locations throughout Syria. Then on March 20, Israel officially admitted that it carried out strikes against a Syrian government facility suspected of being a nuclear reactor site in order to show that Israel has and will react against regional antagonists. The exchanges made headline news throughout the world but also quietly signalled that the Israeli-Iranian competition for power was likely to heat up.
That may happen very soon.
This new proxy war in Syria has the potential to worsen the already-dire humanitarian situation in Syria and the region, and ensuring that the conflict drags on for a much longer time. Israeli and Iranian governments arming opposition forces essentially guarantees that neither side will become so depleted that they collapse quickly, but also that neither side overwhelms the other.
A violent stalemate may break out in southern Syria, reigniting historical rivalries and further proving that the war in Syria is no longer about Syria itself, but is now merely a global staging ground for different powerful forces to contest each other.
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