Iran in southern Syria: More than a danger, less than a war

A Russian Military Police patrol in Daraa (edited by Enab Baladi)

A Russian Military Police patrol in Daraa (edited by Enab Baladi)

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Enab Baladi – Khaled al-Jeratli

Russia’s preoccupation with the Ukraine front was reflected in southern Syria, where Russia reduced its presence and control over the region, which opened the door to Iranian expansion there, according to former leaders of the opposition factions interviewed by Enab Baladi in Daraa.

Meanwhile, the US and Israel are imposing control over the pro-Iranian militias in Syria, which explains the recurrence of Israeli air attacks on Iranian military positions, most notably the Damascus and Aleppo airports.

Such oversight did not include southern Syria to the extent that it indicates the presence of a real Iranian threat in the region, but Israeli experts say that this menace has escalated in recent months.

Russian retreat, Iranian expansion

With Russia’s invasion of Ukraine met with Western-backed resistance, some units withdrew from the southern region of Syria, according to a commander in the Eighth Brigade formed by Russia east of Daraa in 2018.

Certain Russian troops have also retreated from the city of Izraa and the town of Mothbeen, north of Daraa, as was indicated by said commander, owing to the escalation of military operations in Ukraine.

In an interview with Enab Baladi, researcher, and political analyst Hassan al-Nifi predicted that the next phase would see further Iranian expansion into the south in light of Russia’s loss of focus on the region.

However, al-Nifi reckons that the Iranian expansion is due not only to Russia’s withdrawal but also to the fact that Iran’s policy today is concentrated on the region in the context of its conflict with Israel, especially given the repeated obstruction of the Iran-West nuclear deal. Tehran considers its militias in Syria a card used to pressure the West in this particular file.

The Jordanian expert in strategic security, Omar al-Raddad, told Enab Baladi that the scenario of Russian withdrawal from the south of Syria is closer than ever, but he preferred to call it “a reconsideration of the Russian presence in Syria.”

He considered Iran and its militias to be the candidate to replace Russian forces, especially in the southern region.

The most prominent indicator of a Russian retreat in southern Syria for Iran was the cessation of support for the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Corps in Daraa.

According to information obtained by Enab Baladi from its leaders, Russia has abandoned its support for the Brigade since the end of 2021 and has agreed to its joining the Military Intelligence division.

The Eighth Brigade was established on the ruins of the Shabab al-Sunna faction headed by Ahmed al-Awda of the Syrian opposition during its control of southern Syria. It was one of the most important and organized fighting factions, being the only faction present in the city of Busra al-Sham.

With the entry into force of the Russian-sponsored settlements of the regime in 2018, al-Awda maintained its opposition military organization, moving to join the Fifth Corps established by Russia in 2016 as auxiliary forces for the Syrian army.

Russia applies pressure through Iran

The Russian presence was adjusting Iran’s proliferation in the south of Syria according to the views of former local leaders, whom Enab Baladi had interviewed in Daraa.

But the Israeli political researcher and writer Yoav Stern did not agree with this idea, as he considered that Russia, through its presence in the region, was using Iran and its militias as a pressure card on Israel and Jordan.

In response to questions sent electronically by Enab Baladi, he said that it was Russia that allowed Iran to consolidate its points of presence in southern Syria, but under restrictions set by Moscow. On the other hand, Stern noted that Russia’s preoccupation with Ukraine has distracted its focus from the region, which is indicative of Iran’s widespread control.

Despite Iran’s new positioning in the south of Syria close to the Israeli border, Israel has maintained its strategy of thwarting arms smuggling through airports and land crossings via repeated shelling of Syrian airports and the targeting of ground convoys.

However, this strategy has not expanded as Iran’s tide in the south of Syria has expanded, with Israel taking no step to date indicating the rise of the Iranian threat on the borders of the occupied territories with Syria.

Jordanian concerns

Statements by Jordanian officials have conflicted for several months over the Iranian threat of large quantities of drugs crossing Jordan’s borders from Syrian territory.

King Abdallah II of Jordan said that the Arab relationship with Iran was something that all Arab countries wanted, but it must be based on mutual respect. The completion of this relationship requires Iran to “alter its behavior.”

The Jordanian expert in strategic security, Omar al-Raddad, considered that Jordan cannot afford to stand by and watch while Iranian expansion exceeds its natural limit in southern Syria.

He referred to the danger coming from Syria that Jordan sees in two parts, especially as it returned to square one of the “beginnings of the war in Syria” when Jordanian concern was focused on the formation of groups loyal to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and militias such as Hezbollah and others, and the danger of militant factions spreading in the region such as the Islamic State (IS) and al-Qaeda.

Would supporting the opposition faction solve the problem?

Months earlier, analyses and information said to have been leaked about secret meetings reported by former opposition faction activists and leaders have spoken of the prospect of establishing a “safe zone” on the Syrian-Jordanian border, which would be used to push Iranian militias out of the region.

However, a Jordanian official source categorically denied to the Jordanian Ammon News Agency last July what was reported on social media about the establishment of a “safe zone” on the Jordanian-Syrian border.

About a month later, Ahmed al-Awda, commander of the Eighth Brigade, returned to Syria after settling in Jordan for more than a year, prompting questions about the reasons for this return.

Israeli expert Yoav Stern considered that Israel’s intervention by funding and supporting factions opposed to the Syrian regime in Syria could not be carried out directly.

Stern added that the random circulating of news of this kind is a manipulation of the opposition factions in the region. From an Israeli perspective, it is not possible to risk an experiment in which it is not directly concerned, especially since Israel’s experience with opposition factions in southern Syria over the past years has been a “bitter one,” according to Stern.

If there would be any interest in this type of action in the area, it is likely to be a Jordanian or Western option. But for Israel, it is a delicate matter that cannot be tried again.

Jordanian expert Omar al-Raddad considered Jordan to have many options for dealing with the risks coming from Syria, one of which is the card of the Syrian armed opposition in southern Syria, as well as Jordan’s large social and clan extensions with the southern Syrian population in and around Daraa.

Al-Raddad indicated that the option to reactivate these factions exists but is the latter; so long as the Jordanian military can control the border with Syria, there is no need to escalate.

Speaking about opposition factions in southern Syria, Syrian political scholar Hassan al-Nifi said that Russia had taken advantage of the largest of these factions, the Eighth Brigade, and used it as a trick to lead the people of Daraa into believing that said Brigade was independent of regime forces.

However, it later became clear that the influence of the Fourth Division and the Iranian militias exceeded that of the Brigade, and its capabilities and influence gradually declined until it receded in Busra al-Sham, east of Daraa. Moreover, many of those involved in the Brigade from the people of Daraa and those included in the “settlements” have lost confidence in it.

Where is the international community?

Experts and analysts disagreed on the region’s importance to the international community, especially now that everyone is preoccupied with other international crises.

The Israeli analyst considers that the international community is currently unable to focus its attention on Syria’s southern region, but that does not mean that it can ignore the region.

Today’s international community can only bring the issue of Iranian expansion in southern Syria to the table in purely tactical situations.

The Jordanian expert in strategic security, Omar al-Raddad, considered the international community to be cooperating with Jordan in this regard, especially with regard to the security of its northern borders.

But the Syrian file is also linked to the developments of the Ukrainian file, whose end or the results of its developments are currently unpredictable.

The regime in the south

In June 2018, the regime, with Russian air cover and Iranian ground support, was able to control large parts of the governorates of Daraa and Quneitra, and the region ended up completely under its control.

The assassinations of civilians, military personnel, and ex-combatants of the regime and opposition forces have not ceased since the Russian air force-backed regime forces took control of the governorate in July 2018 under a “settlement” agreement.

These operations are often attributed to “unknown persons,” while there are dominant forces with competing interests on the ground, including Iran, Russia, the regime, and IS cells.

Meanwhile, the region is witnessing security chaos that is reflected on all levels, in addition to continuous security campaigns by Syrian regime forces.

These campaigns have often caused armed confrontations between regime forces and the remnants of opposition factions in the region.

 

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