The increasingly dangerous situation in southern Syria may lead to direct US military involvement in the Syrian conflict
Southern Syria is on its way to becoming the centre of a major regional war involving numerous players. It is close to the Syrian border with Israel, and the parties in the conflict in Syria are trying to lay down their own rules for managing it in anticipation of a deal or failing that an escalation that will swiftly spiral out of control.
Earlier this year, US central command (CENTCOM) in Jordan began to draw up plans for strengthening the opposition Free Syrian Army. As soon as he came to power in January, US President Donald Trump declared his support for a “safe zone” in the south and southeast of Syria from Daraa to Al-Tanf.
US and Belgian forces began to train Syrian opposition fighters, creating an organisation stationed at the Syrian-Jordanian border and preparing to back ground forces based in Al-Tanf. Efforts were made with Jordanian logistical support to reduce the anarchy in these forces consisting of the Eastern Lions, Revolutionary Commandos, Tribal Army and some factions of the Free Syrian Army and dissident Syrian army officers.
Meanwhile, the regime led by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and Iran have been moving large concentrations of forces southwards. The majority consists of Hizbullah fighters and Iraqi and Afghani militias.
Many observers believe that the parties involved in the Syrian conflict have thus far failed to come to terms over the distribution of zones of influence in the south because of the complexities of the area that gives the party that controls it the geopolitical upper hand and puts the others on the defensive. It is possible that the players will want to share control over the area, rather than allowing a single party to dominate it.
Developments in the field over the course of the past month suggest that Iran is rebelling against Russian directives in the Syrian conflict. Iran seems to be trying to engage the US in large tracts of Syria, as well as in neighbouring Iraq, and it earlier dispatched militias towards the US military base in Al-Tanf. When the militias failed to heed US warnings, US aircraft bombarded them, after which the US proclaimed the southeast of Syria to be a no-go zone for Iran and its militias.
However, the US has not created solid defence lines in this area or put in place a mechanism to protect it. On the ground, it relies primarily on units of the Free Syrian Army, perhaps 1,000 men in the southeast and twice that number in the south. The US possesses deterrent force in the air, but this is exclusively for defence, and in the past it has been used within bounds that the US has never gone beyond.
In massing troops in the south Iran intends to shift the balance of power in its favour and in favour of the Syrian regime. Israel and Jordan have been warily observing this process, which is moving closer to their borders with Syria. Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Al-Safadi has declared that his country will not tolerate sectarian forces in the area. When no response came from Russia, Amman decided to activate CENTCOM as a way of warding off the Iranian approach towards its borders.
Israel has reiterated its warning that it will not tolerate further Hizbullah or Iranian approaches towards its borders. It has continued to make military strikes against Hizbullah forces in Syria whenever these move strategic weapons or advance towards certain areas.
On 11 May, Hizbullah leader Hassan Nasrallah announced that the group was withdrawing its forces from the Qalamoun region along the Syrian border with Lebanon. The region is free of Syrian opposition militias after Hizbullah evacuated the local inhabitants. He also said that Hizbullah would continue its activities in Syria and that it would deploy thousands of troops in order to reinforce the Syrian regime and pro-Iranian militias in southeast Syria.
Hizbullah forces are spread across southern Syria from Al-Quneitra to Daraa and now to Al-Tanf as well. Iran engineered this presence near Israel’s northern border in order to pave the way for a bartering process over influence in Syria and Lebanon. As the balance of power is strongly inclined towards Israel, Tel Aviv is not compelled to fall in with this plan, and this was one of the reasons for the dispute between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the latter’s recent visit to Moscow.
Netanyahu asked Putin to pressure Hizbullah and the pro-Iranian militias into leaving that area, but Putin refused to intervene.
The war for which all the parties in the Syrian conflict are now preparing could extend into Lebanon. Jordan has considerable influence in the tribal environment in southern Syria, and a number of major clans have extensions on both sides of the border, also making the area particularly sensitive to Jordan.
It impacts on the delicate domestic situation in the country, as well as on Jordan’s role as a geographical buffer for Israel, especially in the light of the proliferation of jihadist groups and Shia militias in the vicinity. Jordan had managed to keep the Syrian southern front under control for more than a year as the battles in northern Syria reached a peak.
While Amman has maintained relations with all the parties to the Syrian conflict, including the regime, it still relies heavily on more than 7,000 British special forces and a few hundred US troops and on the US and British military bases in Jordan. Yet, the Syrian regime appears to be indifferent to its relationship with Jordan, and it has lashed out at Amman, saying that it is “dependent on the US” and threatening that any Jordanian military intervention in Syria without coordinating with Damascus would be considered as an act of aggression.
The troop movements in this area of southern Syria that has been relatively calm for more than two years can be explained in terms of jockeying for territory, advantages and control between the rival forces on the ground and in the larger context of the tug-of-war between the two main powers that influence events in Syria, namely the US and Russia. There is also the Iranian harassment and the resurgent power of the Syrian regime, making it increasingly difficult to isolate.
The US-led international coalition to fight the Islamic State (IS) group in the region knows that IS fighters withdrawing from Mosul and Raqqa might seek refuge in the desert spanning Syria and Iraq in order to regroup or alternatively cross into Jordan. The coalition hopes to prevent both, and it is relying on the Free Syrian Army factions it trained in Jordan to secure control over the Syrian southeast.
The US wants the Free Syrian Army factions to take control over the desert along the road to Deir Al-Zor. But it is running up against the plans of Iran, which is determined to create a corridor linking Tehran to the Mediterranean by way of southeast Syria in order to continue arms supplies to the Syrian regime, Hizbullah, and other militias affiliated with Iran. This is why Iran tried to occupy the Al-Tanf crossing point, where the US intervened as if to caution Iran from approaching the Syrian-Jordanian border.
It is not clear whether Iran understood the US warning because its militias are continuing to advance southwards in Syria. Perhaps it did understand the warning and is now signalling its readiness to confront the US indirectly through Hizbullah forces, the Syrian army and some Iraqi sectarian militias.
Whatever the case may be, the fraught situation in the south is ushering in a hot summer for Syria and one that may mark the beginning of direct US military involvement.