For seven years, Syrian rebels have held a chunk of southwestern Syria. Now the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Assad is planning an offensive to retake the area that borders Israel and Jordan. This could create new conflict involving Washington, Moscow, Israel, Jordan, Syria and Iran. With Iran champing at the bit to continue to play a role in the Syrian civil war, and Washington devoted to pushing back Tehran, any gains for Iran in southwestern Syria could trigger crises.
On May 25, U.S. State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert issued a statement expressing concern about Syria's designs on the rebel enclave. The statement reminded Russia that it agreed to a de-escalation zone and ceasefire in southwest Syria in July and November of 2017. "The agreement must be enforced and respected," Nauert said. The United States pointed out that Assad, Russia and Iran have violated other de-escalation zones in recent months — an apparent reference to the assault on rebel-held areas in eastern Ghouta, surrounding Damascus.
Southwestern Syria could be more sensitive for the region than Damascus because of its strategic border location. Since the beginning of the Syrian conflict, more than 1 million refugees from Syria fled to Jordan and there are still 655,000 in the small country, making up almost 10 percent of the kingdom. The United States helped Jordan support the Syrian rebels in the south, a program that President Trump sought to end last July.
One threat from a potential Syrian offensive is that more refugees could pour into Jordan and destabilize the country or cause protests among the existing refugee population, who fear they will not be able to return to Syria if Assad is victorious. They have counted on support, and losing the south of the country will make them feel betrayed. It was in Daraa in southern Syria where the rebellion against Assad first broke out in 2011.
A more serious threat is rising tensions between Israel and Iran. Israel has threatened Assad about the presence of Iranian-backed militias and Iranian bases in Syria. In April, Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, said Iran has trained 80,000 fighters in Syria supporting the government. In his May 21 speech at the Heritage Foundation, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Iran launched salvos of rockets at Israel and that the United States supports Israel unequivocally in its defense against Iran.
The question is what Iran's moves in southern Syria mean for Washington's broader strategy. Iran wants to stay in Syria when the conflict ends and continue building bases. However, the Syrian government knows it will pay a price for this from Israel, which has vowed not to allow Iran's encroachment to continue. Russia, the major power backing Assad, has a different agenda than Iran. It has amicable relations with Israel and wants Assad's government stabilized. That means every Iranian base undermines Russia's goal.
In the past week, Russia and Israel reportedly have discussed what might happen in southern Syria, and Russia appeared to provide guarantees that no foreign forces would move into areas taken from the rebels. Iran is the wild card in all this. It won't agree to any deals that involve Israel. Similarly, the Syrian rebels have not agreed to give up territory. This means that southwestern Syria has very real potential to become a tinderbox through one false move by one of the players.
Washington could leverage the fact that Israel, Jordan and Russia have the same agenda — to see stability in southern Syria — to bolster its own interests in reducing Iranian influence in the region. For the past few years, the United States largely has conducted its own policy in eastern Syria while Russia and Turkey have worked through their allies in the rest of Syria.
The United States must find a role that brings it back to the table to discuss the rest of Syria. This is difficult, given the state of its recent relations with Moscow. Israel has found a way to discuss Syrian issues quietly with the Russians, in a way that appears to increase security in southern Syria. Now is the time for Washington and Moscow to recognize that regional stability is important and that managing any regime offensive in southwestern Syria must be done in a way that meets the needs of all involved, including the rebels' fears of human rights violations by Assad's regime.
Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum