Chances of a security belt in southern Syria to exclude Iran
Enab Baladi – Diana Rahima
Analyses and opinions on the possible establishment of a safe zone on the Syrian-Jordanian border, following news of secret meetings that were reported by activists and former leaders of the Syrian opposition in southern Syria through conventional and social media.
To find out the reality of these meetings and the prospects for establishing a safe zone, Enab Baladi spoke to leaders and experts from the Syrian and Jordanian sides about the possibility of establishing said safe zone in which opposition factions in the south would be rearmed to deter Iranian incursions into the region from approaching the Jordanian border.
What is the source of information?
Lawyer Suleiman al-Qarfan told Enab Baladi that “during the past month, meetings were held in the United Arab Emirates with the participation of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt. Representatives of the faction leaders and representatives from As-Suwayda and Quneitra also attended these meetings”.
He added that there was an agreement between these components to establish a safe zone along the Syrian-Jordanian border, at a depth of 35 kilometers.
Al-Qarfan, a member of the Syrian Constitutional Committee and former head of the Free Lawyers Syndicate in Daraa, added that the establishment process could continue until the end of this month, and by the end of the summer, the safe zone would be established, he said.
Regarding the possibility of its formation, al-Qarfan said that there are favorable conditions due to the Russians’ preoccupation with their war on Ukraine.
The deteriorating economic situation and the security chaos might prompt young people to rally around faction leaders after allocating financial sums to them, he continued.
Al-Qarfan expected both the regime and Iran to oppose the establishment of the safe zone. The two sides began with precautionary steps, namely, lifting berms and digging tunnels in the al-Tanf area on the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi border, from which the safe area is expected to start, as well as meeting with all officers of the 90th Brigade in Quneitra to discuss the matter.
In a statement to Ammon News Agency on 7 July, an official Jordanian source categorically denied what was circulated on social media of the establishment of a safe zone on the Syrian – Jordanian border.
Speaking to the news agency, the source added that nothing of this nature had ever been discussed.
He explained that there are no talks about establishing a safe zone while stressing that Jordan was not considering it.
Putting out feelers
The political researcher from Daraa, Hussam al-Baram, considered that the rumors and the announcement of establishing a safe zone on the Syrian-Jordanian border are a mixture of scouting the opinions of the Jordanian and Syrian streets and an assessment of the possibility of implementing the plan by Jordanian, and possibly international, intelligence, or even research centers.
With regard to the applicability of the buffer zone, al-Baram believes that there is no substantial reliance on it and that only 40 percent is possible to implement, seeing that Jordan seeks first and foremost to secure its national security.
The establishment of a buffer zone more than 35 kilometers deep collides with the inability to implement the current phase inside Syria due to the crisis of confidence that occurred after Jordan abandoned the Syrian south in 2018.
Jordan warned the opposition factions that the reinforcements were formal and did not take a pro-factional stance in the face of the Syrian-Russian offensive that led to the regime’s control of the entire southern region. Jordan also closed its borders completely at the time.
Al-Baram predicted that the proposal would be a means of pressure on the countries in force in the Syrian file, especially as the Russian role had been diminished by the invasion of Ukraine; the Russians’ role had not been instrumental in curbing the Iranian expansion in the absence of Russian forces active in the southern Syrian region in a manner that protected the border.
Talks have escalated since last April about Russia reducing the number of its military forces in Syria to strengthen its fighting front in Ukraine. The Moscow Times published news about Moscow’s reduction of the number of its forces in Syria during the current phase, justifying the decision by continuing Russian military operations in Ukraine and Russia handing over its centers of presence to Iran and the Lebanese Hezbollah.
In turn, the Jordanian strategic expert, Pr. Amer al-Sabaileh told Enab Baladi that the Iranian threat and its formation has undoubtedly become a concern for the United States today, and it is occupied with it because of its military presence in areas close to the border (in reference to the al-Tanf area on the border triangle between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq). The US is therefore concerned with solving the security equation in this area and preventing any future targeting of it and is looking for allies who can at least ensure that these regions do not fall into the hands of Iranian or IS militias.
Most other countries that are now pushing to contain the Iranian threat on the Syrian border have an interest and are working on using that as a point of rapprochement with the US administration. Therefore, it is not unlikely that the attempt to invest at this stage will be made in a manner similar to what was invested during the IS stage in the south.
The implementation of a proactive US plan may be preceded by signals from the United States to support local factions leading to the security belt idea between the location of these factions on the ground and inside Syria.
Relying on local factions, Not possible
On the possibility of relying on the former Russian-backed Eighth Brigade, political researcher Hussam al-Baram indicated that said brigade included 1,200 fighters, but the Russians dissolved its affiliation with them in November 2021, and it became affiliated with the regime’s Military Security Branch, which is one of the regime’s apparatuses.
The people of Daraa also lost faith in the Eighth Brigade after abandoning some 700 combatants who were among its ranks. The brigade, therefore, lost the trust of the population for it to take over a sensitive position of this magnitude.
A former leader of the opposition factions told Enab Baladi that the people of southern Syria will not enter a new holocaust because Jordan and friendly countries abandoned the Syrian people in 2018, and they are now reaping the results of their abandonment after the region was under faction control.
Jordan welcomed the Syrian regime’s takeover of the region in the hope of border control, but smuggling operations, especially narcotics, expanded to include large quantities and new items after the regime held the area.
The former leader explained that the current solutions must be international under the supervision of the United Nations and considered what is happening as part of the international schemes in the Syrian file.
Was Jordan deceived?
For his part, Jordanian journalist and writer Bassam al-Badarin told Enab Baladi that Amman believes it has been subjected to deception over the past years, pointing to Jordan’s restoration of its relations with the Syrian regime in exchange for securing its northern border and keeping Iran away from it.
Al-Badarin considered that whoever works to rehabilitate the regime, maintain it, and establish relations with it, is, in fact, supporting Iran because the regime’s existence is a direct presence of Iran. There is no room for any equivocation, interpretation, or embellishment about this, he estimated.
When the area was handed over to the regime during the summer of 2018, everyone was aware that it was delivered to Iran, al-Badarin said.
Iranian alarm bells are ringing and have been ringing for years. There are widely Iranian-controlled governorates, such as Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, where the manifestations of Shiism are blatant and frightening. According to al-Badarin, Iran is now in direct control of the most important and sensitive areas of the capital Damascus, the first being the Umayyad Mosque and its surroundings.
The Russian declined influence played a significant role in Iran’s interest in the south. However, al-Badarin says that said decline is not related to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as it is now being promoted, but to the period before it; one of the greatest indicators of Russian control was the presence of the Russian-backed Eighth Brigade, but after Russia withdrew its cover from it and slotted it into the Military Intelligence Division, this brigade was placed in front of a fait accompli to find itself directly affiliated with it.
Drug smuggling has not arisen or increased after the Ukrainian war but has remained at the same level, especially since Iran was struck with financial restrictions after the suspension of the nuclear deal and the sale and delivery of drugs by Hezbollah to Arab countries through Jordan. The opening of the crossing was the biggest aid to the entry of drugs.
The New York Times published an investigation on 5 December 2021, which established that the Maher al-Assad-led Fourth Division was responsible for manufacturing and exporting the Captagon narcotic, in addition to the fact that businessmen with close ties to the regime and Hezbollah are leading its trade.
In late April 2021, a study released by the Center for Operational Analysis and Research (COAR) revealed the scale of the disaster, showing that Syria has become a global center for producing Captagon with sophisticated technologies, with exports worth more than 3 billion and 46 million US dollars.
He explained that thorough observers would know that the large proportion of drug smuggling attempts takes place through the crossing and not across the border, finding the talk about a safe border belt surprising.
The journalist and writer Bassam al-Badarin considered it incorrect to promote the idea of the security belt south of Syria or NATO in the Middle East (also supported by the King of Jordan) because of the Iranian expansion. In short, it was due to America’s fear that its plan in Ukraine would fail, thus wanting it to keep Russia locked up within the Ukrainian framework and scope to be quietly drained, he reckons.
The letdown of 2018
Before June 2018, opposition forces controlled the entire eastern countryside up to the administrative borders of the Daraa city center, along with Daraa al-Balad, the western countryside, a large part of the northern countryside, and the Quneitra governorate.
In May 2017, specifically in the fourth round of the Astana meetings, Russia, Iran, and Turkey signed on to add the southern region to the “de-escalation zones.”
The military factions abided by this agreement and refrained from carrying out any military action to relieve pressure from the eastern countryside of Damascus, which was facing intense military campaigns in February 2018.
After the cease-fire agreement, the Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) refrained from providing arms to the opposition, although the opposition was waging war against IS, which took control of the entire Yarmouk Basin and the strategic Jamou hill.
After the US and Jordan abandoned the opposition in the south, regime forces managed to take control of the entire eastern countryside during 17 days of battles thanks to Russian air support, while Daraa al-Balad and the western countryside entered the “settlement” negotiations with the Russians that ended with heavy weapons being handed over and the regime entering the areas without installing military checkpoints.
Russia pledged to the faction leaders to fulfill their demands to release the detainees, raise security demands, return the army to its barracks, and reinstate dismissed employees. However, these demands have not been met.
Enab Baladi’s correspondent in Daraa Halim Muhammad contributed to this report.
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