Enab Baladi Investigations Team
With an eye gazing towards the south, following the regime’s takeover of eastern Ghouta last March, Syrians were waiting for the new destination of al-Assad’s forces after they controlled most of the Syrian map.
Ghouta was not just a mere war stage among other stages, but it was considered as a harsh lesson and an important indicator that international supporters have abandoned the opposition factions and that the Russians have the last word now in their support of the Syrian regime in accordance with international interests and consensus.
Syrians who opposed the regime did not hold any great expectations in relation to the military resistance in the south with the beginning of the regime’s campaign, on jun 19, nor did they allow any false hopes to be constructed about the cradle of the Syrian revolution, the land that witnessed the first shouts for freedom and calls to overthrow the regime.
The war events that ranged from easy victories to surrender and reconciliation dominated the scene. Meanwhile, the regional state of affairs was extremely hard and intransigent, and thousands of displaced Syrians are consequently hanging on the border fence between Syria and Jordan, with no hope of survival.
For the first time in two years, the North of Syria has not been included in the settlements about the South as a destination for the opposition factions, while the fate of the opposition fighters remains unknown in light of the reconciliations.
American hands off… And Turkey keeps “silent”
After the US withdrawal, the fate of the Syrian southern regions was clear. The United States gave Russia permission to resume its military operations and to dominate all the areas controlled by the opposition factions without facing any kind of obstacle; regardless of what was agreed upon under the table during the negotiations between international actors in the region in the recent meetings held in Jordan.
The United States withdrawal was summarized by a letter addressed to the military factions in Daraa saying: “We in the US government understand the difficult circumstances you are facing now, and we continue to advise the Russians and the Syrian regime not to take any military action that violates the tension-free zone in south western Syria”.
The US government clarified its stance asserting: “We understand that you must make your decision according to your interests alongside your people and your faction, and you should not base your decision on the assumption or expectation of a military intervention by us. You must hold your decision based on your assessment of your own best interests and the good of your people, and this decision is exclusively up to you”.
The reasons behind the US withdrawal from the south are still unknown. While political analysts link it to a potential accord between Russia and the US to uproot Iran from Syria, others attribute it to the intersection of interests between Russians and Americans in other regions, especially the vast American-administered areas in the eastern region.
2017 marks the beginning of withdrawal
Over the past seven years, the US has emerged as a prominent and active international actor in the Syrian file, based on its military support for the Free Syrian Army factions in all Syrian regions, in addition to backing up the Kurdish forces to gain a foothold in large areas in the North and the East of Syria.
The Southern front received logistical support from the United States, which included the supply of sophisticated ammunition and missiles and salaries, through the so-called support coordination room. However, the funds stopped early last year after the inauguration of Donald Trump, which marked the beginning of US withdrawal from Syria.
Deserting the opposition factions in Daraa was a surprise after a series of threats and warnings of a battle in the South launched by the US against the Assad forces. Yet, although the signs of withdrawal were obvious, the factions did not see it coming. Thus, the opposition continued to implement the plans drawn from the first years to receive support and conducted its military action only against ISIS away from the Syrian regime.
After the election of the new president, Donald Trump, the US administration considered that support for the opposition factions was “wrongly” done and concluded that a more convenient plan would consist in merging all factions in one single military platform.
In early 2017, an article published in The Washington Post, entitled: “Cooperation with Russia becomes central to Trump strategy in Syria”, said that the decision of withdrawal came as a result of an American-Russian agreement.
Turkey keeps silent
Turkey was the third guarantor of the “tension easing” agreement, which included the South in July last year, along with Russia and Iran. But Ankara did not express a firm stance on the developments taking place in the South, and only forwarded its “deep concern and grief” through the spokesman on behalf of the Turkish Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hami Aksawi.
The current situation is not new, but it is similar to what happened in eastern Ghouta during the attack by al-Assad forces and the militias supporting it, followed by the events that took place in the cities and towns of northern Homs, in May this year. Thus, in spite of the resistance shown by the factions, the opposition failed to keep the city of Aleppo under the control of the opposition and lost it to Russia and the Syrian regime, in late 2016.
Aksawi said in statements made ten days after the the military campaign started that, “the attacks by al-Assad forces on these areas have killed dozens of civilians. We are deeply saddened and worried about what is happening, and we strongly condemn these inhumane attacks, which undermine the efforts made in Astana and Geneva to reduce violence in the region and find a political solution to the crisis”.
What is striking in the Turkish position is Russia’s total rejection of the departure of the faction fighters to the North of Syria, and its insistence on settling their situation only after they surrender the totality of their heavy and light weapons in full.
Some sources that know the details of the negotiations on the South told Enab Baladi that the Russian insistence on keeping the fighters in Daraa is part of the agreements with the Turkish government, which, in turn, refused to receive any migrant or fighter to the areas it runs in the North under the pretext that they have already allowed thousands of fighters and civilians in during the past months.
Daraa handed over after settlements with the factions
The armed forces concentrations that preceded the battle of the South were incapable of preventing the offensive led by al-Assad troops, promoted since the beginning of this year. Instead, the clashes were presented through video recordings and background pictures, confirming the extent of dependence of the opposition’s military formations on international resolutions and how it deviated from the objectives of the Syrian revolution and served the personal interests of particular individuals.
The forces and militias of al- Assad entered into vast areas in Daraa in an accelerated and surprising manner. The full scene appeared in a pre-painted plan and with the connection between some military factions with the Russian side, which is still negotiating to enter all areas controlled by the opposition.
The major breach through which al-Assad’s forces have penetrated the territories is the eastern countryside. It began its offensive from Lajat region in the north-eastern countryside and was able to isolate it completely from the rest of the areas after controlling the strategic town of Busra al-Harir.
Just a few days after the “fall” of Lajat and Busra al-Harir, the winds of the field blew in the direction of al-Assad forces sails that started to divide the area into enclaves, in conjunction with aerial and missile bombardment, which accurately targeted weapons warehouses and the factions’ headquarters, military sources told Enab Baladi.
The control spread later to the eastern and western Al-Malihah and Al-Hirak to Al-Ghariyah al-Sharqiyah, Al-Ghariyah al-Gharbiyah and Al-Karak. The region entered a new phase through the settlement agreements, under which al-Assad’s forces entered into dozens of villages and towns without fighting. This was not confined to the eastern countryside, but rather to the western countryside, and the Russian police entered to the cities of Abta, Da’el and Tafs after the the conclusion of what the official version called “reconciliation”.
The military plan followed by al-Assad forces in Daraa resembled what took place in the eastern Ghouta and Idlib and Hama surrounding areas, which became known as the “enclave policy”, which aims to divide the area to be controlled into enclaves and swallow its surroundings so that each region can be controlled separately.
Al-Assad’s forces relied on the opening of more than one military axis, which was followed in Daraa. The first axis started from the western countryside of As-Suwayda, followed by a second axis from the area of Geraz, east of Daraa al-Balad, and later opened a third axis towards the city of Busra al-Sham, whose fate is still unknown, after the fall of several villages and towns in its vicinity.
In parallel with the progress achieved by the regime and making reconciliation agreements in several towns, the military factions’ leaders have missed the field scene of Daraa, especially the Jordan-backed Army of Free Tribes, the Sunni Youth Forces, the Revolutionary Army faction and the Artillery and Rockets Regiment.
They were accused of handing over the areas without fighting, especially in the eastern countryside, which witnessed a clear and rapid withdrawal with little resistance, although the recent military parades were there, including the military parade of “the Sunni Youth Forces” faction, which featured dozens of military vehicles and heavy machine guns.
Daraa al-Balad is an obstacle to the Russians
Previous developments have been accompanied by two truces reached by Russia with the military factions to determine the fate of the opposition fighters. Moscow has imposed conditions that require their total surrender and the delivery of their heavy and medium weapons, and definitely refused that they leave to the North.
During the first truce, no agreement was reached, while the negotiations that accompanied the second truce failed because of the insistence of the Russians on the factions’ total surrender to the Syrian regime, which was rejected by the latter, especially the factions operating in Daraa al-Balad and the town of Busra al-Sham in Daraa eastern countryside.
In addition to the previous axes opened by al-Assad forces, it is moving towards the air defense battalion west of Daraa al-Balad, which is trying to control it to completely besiege Daraa al-Balad neighbourhoods. The control of the battalion means cutting the military road between the eastern and western countryside of Daraa.
The attempt came a year after a similar attack, where al-Assad forces took control of the battalion and cut off the military road using fire, but the factions quickly regained their sites and dozens of people were killed and captured among the Assad forces. athy also took hold of various machineries, weapons and ammunition.
In the previous attack, al-Assad forces had opened a military enclave from Sajnah neighborhood (adjacent to al-Manshiyeh) towards the farms on the border of the old Daraa customs on the Syrian-Jordanian border, in an attempt to besiege the entire Daraa al-Balad.
Opening of Nasib Border Crossing
Three countries benefit at once
In addition to the military objectives, al-Assad forces attention is directed towards the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, which is under the control of the Syrian opposition factions. It has brought huge reinforcements to open battles from Busra al-Sham and Kherba Ghazala towards the crossing if negotiations with the factions did not reach an agreement.
The crossing is located between Jabir town, Jordan, in Mafraq district, and Syrian Nasib town, in Daraa province. It was established in 1991 and is considered one of the busiest crossings on the Syrian border. It is strategically important for Syrian exporters as it is located on the international road between Damascus and Amman.
The Syrian opposition factions took control of the crossing in April 2015, after the withdrawal of the Assad fighters from it, which prompted the Jordanian side to close it, against the backdrop of the thefts that took place there.
Although the Syrian opposition formed a civil committee to follow up and run the crossing, and to ensure its organization and management, as is the case at the Bab al-Hawa crossing on the Turkish border; however, this was rejected with a Jordanian rejection, despite the considerable financial loss of the Jordanian economy.
In the past two years, the crossing has been the talk of local media, amid the spread of intermittent news about a settlement deal between the regime and the opposition, to hand over the crossing administration to the regime, in agreement with Jordan, but the news remained without official statements, and the lines of the agreement were not clear.
In July 2017, Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that Jordan has set five conditions for reopening the crossing, centered on the presence of neutral Syrian employees, raising the flag of the regime at the crossing, which should remain under the control of opposition forces agreed by Jordan, and the removal of al-Assad forces and the Iranian militias from the crossing, as well as securing the international road between Damascus and the border.
However, local councils and opposition factions in Daraa responded in October 2017 and set eight conditions for opening the crossing. The first is to settle down the case of detainees through full release with international guarantees, raising the flag of the revolution at the crossing; handing over the entire supervision to the Daraa province council;entrusting appointment functions to staff members with experience in the liberated areas; the introduction of humanitarian assistance to the south and the eastern Ghouta (besieged by the Syrian regime last April) with international guarantees, as a window of import and export between Jordan and the civil administration in Daraa province; and the non-deployment of the regime and the Russian forces at the crossing under any pretext.
However, all the conditions and efforts to restore the crossing remained merely attempts by the three parties before the regime intended to control it after an implicit agreement between Russia, America and Jordan on the return of al-Assad forces to the entire Jordanian border.
Lebanese-Syrian-Jordanian commercial corridor
The Syrian regime’s insistence on opening of the crossing, in addition to Jordan which worked on opening channels with the regime after a break which lasted for years by sending an economic delegation headed by the head of the Jordan Chamber of Industry, Adnan Abu Ragheb, to the Syrian capital (Damascus) in May, are part of the crossing’s economic importance for both sides.
The closure of the crossing has formed a major economic blow to the two sides, especially Jordan as its corridor to the European market, in addition to the fact that 70 percent of Jordan’s food, imports and exports were coming from Syria, as previously stated by President of Jordanian Free Zones Investors Association, Nabil Rumman to AFP in 2015.
The crossing is the only way out and a transit bridge for Jordanian trucks heading towards Lebanon, Turkey and the Balkan countries, which constitute a good percentage of Jordanian exports.
According to foreign trade data released by the Jordanian General Statistics Department in July 2017, Jordanian exports to Syria have lost 83.7 percent during the last five years. Exports value decreased from 183 million Jordanian dinars in 2011 to 29.8 million Jordanian dinars in 2016, with a loss value of 153.2 million Jordanian dinars.
During the first four months of this year, exports have amounted to 9.9 million Jordanian dinars, compared to 12.5 million Jordanian dinars for the same period last year, with a decrease rate of 20.8 percent.
First Deputy Chairman of Jordan Chamber of Commerce, Ghassan Kharfan, confirmed to Anadolu news agency in April 2016 that the losses of the Jordanian Kingdom as a result of the closure of the borders with Syria and Iraq have reached two billion dollars.
This crossing is mainly of political importance to the Syrian regime, as it will restore economic relations with Jordan and ease the siege imposed on Assad’s regime, which would give it a legitimacy in front of the world as it controls borders and border crossings.
In terms of economy, the regime is seeking to export its products to the Jordanian and Gulf markets, in addition to achieving huge financial turnovers and replenishing its foreign exchange treasury through the imposition of customs at the crossing and transit through the entry of Jordanian trucks to Syria, in addition to the passage of Lebanese trucks through it, especially that it is the only ground crossing for Lebanon with the Arab markets, especially the Gulf one, as it will form a “trade corridor” between Lebanon, Syria and Jordan.
The closure of the crossing resulted in large losses in Lebanon, as it was the passage for 70 percent of its agricultural exports, 32 percent of food products and 22 percent of the total industry exports, according to statements by the chairman and general manager the investment promotion agency, the Investment Development Authority of Lebanon (IDAL), Nabil Itani, to Asharq Al-Awsat, on 16 July last year.
Continuing waves of displaced Syrians… Will they end in Daraa?
There have been consecutive UN and human rights organizations reports that have been concerned about the fate of more than 750 thousand people who are besieged in Daraa Governorate, south-west of Syria, warning the conflicting parties not to target civilians and calling for keeping them away from all political and military conflicts.
As soon as the military operations started in the south of Syria on June 19, waves of displacement started to rage which formed a burden to the residents when Jordan and Israel openly declared that they were not ready to receive any Syrian refugees, while the Syrian regime’s checkpoints do not allow the passage to its areas, except for a “large” sum of money.
Displacement is increasing… But the doors are closed
According to recent UN statistics that were released on Saturday, 30 June, there have been 160 thousand displaced people from Daraa Governorate as a result of the battles. The number is expected to increase in the upcoming days, in case the escalation continued as it is.
According to Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa, the statistics often cover the displaced people all along the border fence separating the occupied Golan. The displaced people preferred to go there to make sure they avoid the air force bombings.
Jordan, in turn, did not respond to popular and international calls to open the borders to the displaced people. It declared that the presence of more than 650 thousand Syrian refugees on its territories is already a burden, how would it be like then if it reopened its borders in front of the displaced people of Daraa.
Following his meeting with UN Secretary-General António Guterres, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said that Jordan has been carrying enough burdens of Syrian refugees and it had reached its full responsibility, as he put it.
He added: “The borders with Syria are closed and the movements inside Syria are towards the East and the West. The United Nations can work in the Syrian interior to protect and secure the Syrians there, and we will support them.”
At the popular level, Jordanian Twitter users launched a campaign calling for the reopening of the Jordanian-Syrian borders to the displaced people, under the hashtag “Open the Borders”. Popular demonstrations were also held in the Jordanian city of Irbid, in which demonstrators demanded to put humanitarian considerations above everything, at a time when people who are escaping from the bombings are living outdoors.
Israel exploits the problem of displaced people
In turn, Israel took advantage of the displacement crisis in southern Syria to promote itself as a friendly state of the Arab nations that are suffering from the oppression of their rulers by providing humanitarian aid to Syrian refugees arriving at its borders.
IDF Spokesman Avichay Adraee published a video recording on his Twitter account which shows the provision of aid to the displaced people on the Israeli-Syrian borders. He also talked about the provision of about 300 tents, 13 tons of food, three tons of children food, logistical assistance and medical supplies.
From the standpoint of “good neighborliness,” Adraee announced the Israeli government’s response to the displaced people’s crisis at its borders. He stressed that “The IDF has long been providing aid to the Syrian refugees to show its good intentions.”
The “good intentions” that Avichay talked about were met with a contradicting statement by Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who said that Israel would not allow any Syrian refugees to enter its “territories”.
Lieberman added in his official Twitter account: “We are closely monitoring the events in southern Syria. We will protect Israel’s security interests, and as always we will be ready to provide humanitarian aid to civilians, women and children. However, we will not allow the entry of any Syrian refugees to our territories.”
In addition to the Jordanian-Israeli border restrictions, the United Nations condemned the Syrian regime’s exploitation of the displacement crisis by taking large sums of money from displaced people wishing to enter the areas under its control.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Prince Zeid Raad Al Hussein, said in a statement that the Syrian regime did not allow civilians to enter areas under its control in the two governorates of Daraa and As-Suwayda.
He added that the Syrian regime’s checkpoints are taking hundreds of dollars from civilians to allow them to pass.
The weak response to the displacement crisis has repeatedly demonstrated the international community’s inability to exercise its powers to protect Syrian civilians at the expense of the political and military interests of the major active powers in the Syrian conflict.