Russia on sidelines as Syrian regime and Iranian militias prepare for battles in Daraa

A Russian soldier standing inside an armored military vehicle watching anti-settlement local fighters being evicted from Daraa city - 15 July 2018 (AFP)

A Russian soldier standing inside an armored military vehicle watching anti-settlement local fighters being evicted from Daraa city - 15 July 2018 (AFP)

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Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima

The recent military escalation in Daraa governorate, southern Syria, has been marked by the absence of the Russian role, despite Russia being the guarantor of the settlement agreement reached between Syrian regime forces and opposition factions in July 2018.

In early June, the city of Daraa al-Balad went under siege by the regime to force locals to hand over their heavy weapons. For its part, the Daraa Central Committee (DCC), the other party in the negotiations, denied locals’ possession of heavy weapons and said that they own individual arms not included in the previous settlement agreement. 

The situation escalated in Daraa al-Balad, and the regime tightened its siege on the city amid incomplete, partial settlements, notably the one reached by the regime and DCC on 25 July. Nevertheless, the regime breached the agreement and intensified its military operations, bombing the city with tanks and heavy artillery on 29 July, killing eight civilians, including a woman and four children, the Daraa Martyrs Documentation Office (DMDO) reported.  

On the same day, local fighters from Daraa governorate took control of regime’s checkpoints in the eastern and western countryside as a response to the regime’s shelling and siege of Daraa al-Balad.

The regime’s latest escalation was missing its Russian ally that often supports regime forces and Iranian-backed militias, fighting alongside the regime’s 4th Division.

Since July 2018, Daraa governorate has been subjected to a reconciliation agreement between opposing factions of the former Free Syrian Army (FSA) in Daraa and Syrian regime forces under Russian auspices. The agreement stipulated the surrender of heavy and medium weapons to regime forces and the settlement of Daraa’s former opposition fighters and wanted persons’ security status.

Under the agreement, military service evaders were given six months to join the regime’s army, while the regime pledged to stop arrest campaigns and release detainees.  

After signing the agreement, Russia opened the door to former fighters who agreed to settle to join the Fifth Corps, while it appointed former FSA leader Ahmed al-Awda at the command of the 8th Brigade, a subdivision of the Russian-founded Fifth Corps.

 Many former opposition fighters agreed to join the Fifth Corps’ ranks as the best of other available options, including deportation to northern Syria or joining regime forces and military formations, chiefly the 4th Division.

The discrepancy in Russian-Iranian positions in Daraa clashes 

Military analyst Brigadier General Ibrahim Jabawi told Enab Baladi in a previous talk that the regime has broken Daraa’s settlement deal in separation from the Russian guarantor, for the latter has been absent from the current events on the ground. 

Jabawi, originally from Daraa governorate and a member of the opposition’s Syrian Negotiation Commission (SNC), said that Russia continues to focus on holding Syrian refugees return conferences; therefore, any involvement in military battles in Daraa might weaken its promoted refugee-related diplomatic efforts.

The military analyst added that the regime is unlikely to initiate any military operation without Russia’s permission. He also commented on the Iranian presence in the latest escalation, which he described as “strong,” represented by the involvement of the 4th Division that is directly supported by Iran.

Activists and local social media networks published video recordings showing military forces shouting the name of the 4th Division after they were brought to the environs of Daraa city. 

Russian-Israeli relations in Syria

Syrian researcher and political analyst Nasr al-Yousef told Enab Baladi that the Russians are not happy with Iran and its affiliated forces, including the 4th Division, for breaching the 2018 Daraa settlement agreement. The agreement required Iranian militias to distance themselves from frontlines with Israel. However, the militias did not adhere to the request and increased their presence, which infuriated Russia fearing for its interests with Israel.   

According to al-Yousef, the Russian absence from Daraa’s battlefields mirrors internal conflicts between the Syrian, Russian, and Iranian alliance and makes the alliance’s moves more predictable and understandable.

Al-Yousef said that Russia is not likely to help the sectarian alliance of Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and the regime to bring back the region under the mantle of international legitimacy.

Al-Yousef, who is an expert in Russian affairs, said that Iran seeks internal strife and bloodshed in Syria, and any agreement aiming at peace, security, and calm, would serve against its interests, particularly during the current conditions as Iran goes through tough negotiations with the west to reactivate the nuclear deal talks.   

In conjunction with Daraa’s military escalation in July, Russian sources spoke about a shift in Russia’s position towards Israeli attacks on Syria. Russian and Syrian forces conducted military air defence exercises for the Pantsir anti-aircraft missile systems provided by Russia, which was interpreted as another indicator of Russia’s altered stand regarding Israeli strikes on Syria, the Russian Rusvesna media outlet published on 27 July.

On 24 July, the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper cited a Russian source saying that Moscow has run out of patience with Israel’s attacks on Syria and is planning to change its policies regarding Israeli airstrikes on Syria. 

Russia has provided the regime with more sophisticated anti-missile systems to respond to Israeli airstrikes targeting sites for the regime, Iran, and Hezbollah on Syrian soil.  

Al-Yousef commented on the Russian mobilization as being a manipulative attempt by Russia to appear supportive to the “Axis of Resistance,” a Shiite anti-Israel and anti-western alliance between Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah, while in reality, the Russian support does not affect the Russian strategic approach towards Israel.

Iranian militias distribution in southern Syria

Iranian militias have 18 military posts distributed in the cities and villages of Daraa governorate. These posts host militants from Hezbollah, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), and local militias run directly by Iran, most of which are centered in Daraa’s northern countryside. Another four posts are set in the surroundings of Daraa city, according to the Iran Wire website that is specialized in covering the Iranian influence and deployment in Syria.

In Quneitra governorate, militants from Hezbollah and IRGC are positioned over ten military points, whose mission is monitoring, reconnoitering, and disrupting enemy operations.

In As-Suwayda, there are four posts containing Iranian militia members in the Khalkhalah airport to the northeast of As-Suwayda, the al-Tha’alah airport in western As-Suwayda, and the 127th Special Forces Division. 

In Daraa governorate, where the regime’s latest military operations are taking place, there are 19 military posts for Iranian militias, placing it in second place after Damascus governorate and its countryside in the number of posts controlled by Iran on Syrian territories.

 

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