Regional war averted for now but Syrians continue to suffer
In Syria, the last two weeks have brought more misery to its wretched citizens. On June 19, the government launched a new offensive against rebels in the south and southwest of the country, displacing nearly 300,000 people. They have scampered for safety to the Jordanian and Israeli borders, where they are camped in deplorable conditions.
After the success of the government in retaking Aleppo, Homs, Palmyra and finally Ghouta, and securing its capital, the southern campaign had been anticipated as the Bashar Assad regime, already in control of 60 percent of the country, is moving swiftly to take back the remaining parts from rebel hands.
The south, consisting of the provinces of Quneitra, Daraa and Sweida, has more than 1 million residents of different denominations. The main rebel forces are from the Free Syrian Army, which is said to have about 20,000 fighters, though there is a sprinkling of extremist elements across the region. Over the last year, the south was relatively peaceful due to the de-escalation zone put in place by Russia, Jordan and the US, although rebel activity, including the supply of arms and training, was coordinated from a Military Operations Command located in Jordan.
On June 12, before commencing operations, the government offered amnesty to the rebels — asking them to lay down their arms in return for relocation to another rebel-held area. Prominent rebel leader Abu Omar Joulani firmly rejected the government offer and vowed to fight on, without the backing of regional supporters if necessary.
The attack was preceded by hectic diplomatic activity, when “rules” relating to the offensive were agreed to by the principal players and the government. The most important interactions were between Russia and Jordan, Israel and the US.
Jordan conveyed that it wanted the south cleared of rebels. It is already hosting 1.5 million Syrian refugees and wants them to return home. Jordan is also keen that the Nasib post on its border with Syria is reopened so that it can obtain the $400 million it gets annually from customs duties and other taxes from cross-border traffic. In return, Jordan agreed to close the MOC, thus ending military and logistical support to rebels in Syria.
Russian diplomacy also successfully obtained Israel’s backing for the attack. It accepted the Israeli condition that the offensive be conducted only by Syrian government forces, with Iranian forces and militias backed by Iran not involved. Russia also seems to have accepted that Iranian and Hezbollah forces would be at least 70 km from the Israeli border.
The US and Israel are now focusing on promoting regime change in Tehran rather than war.
America's public and private postures were different. On June 14, the State Department said the US would take “firm and appropriate” measures if the Assad government violated the de-escalation zone.
However, within a week, the rebel groups received an official US letter that clarified: “You should not base your decision (to fight) on an assumption or expectation of military intervention from our side.” Observers believe this position recalls Trump’s earlier observation that the US had spent $70 billion on the conflict and had nothing to show for it, and reflects a reluctance to engage militarily in Syria.
Given this diplomatic support, government forces, with solid Russian air and ground support, have had little difficulty in making rapid advances, amidst reports of fierce fighting and also of large numbers of rebels accepting the government’s amnesty offer.
As the fighting continues in the south, northern Syria is also experiencing uncertainty. Having supported the Americans in the battle against Daesh, the Kurds now find the US anxious to maintain close ties with Turkey. Not only did it allow Turkey to take Afrin from the Kurds, it has also concluded a “road map” with the Turkish government to cleanse Manbij of Kurdish fighters, who are viewed by Turkey as affiliates of its own dissident Kurdistan Workers’ Party, and hence “terrorists.”
The other concern the Kurds have is that a new Arab force could be set up in their region, funded and mobilized by regional Arab states and backed by the US. Sensing another big power betrayal, the Kurds have rediscovered their Syrian identity and have begun an engagement with the Assad regime, commencing with a meeting with a high-powered government delegation in early June.
A prominent Syrian-Kurdish leader has even said that the Kurds would resist eviction from Manbij with the help of Syrian government forces. Noting the changes in the ground situation in favor of Assad and Russia, they are now calling for a negotiated settlement of all Syria-related matters.
As of now, the likelihood of an imminent region-wide conflagration, ignited by Israeli concerns relating to Iranian and Hezbollah presence in Syria, appears to have abated. The US and Israel are now focusing on promoting regime change in Tehran rather than war. But Israel has just appointed a major general as its first “project director for Iran issues,” whose mandate includes Iran’s presence in Syria.
War clouds may have moved away, but the idea of war remains on the table. Meanwhile, thousands of displaced Syrians continue to live in misery.
• Talmiz Ahmad is a former Indian diplomat.