In July 2017, Russia, the US and Jordan agreed to a cease-fire in southwest Syria, an area that borders both Israel and Jordan and has been held by Syrian rebels since 2012. This is an important area for what remains of the Syrian rebellion because the rebellion started in Daraa in southwestern Syria. Today it is once again in the spotlight because the Syrian Army wants to finally retake the area, and that has prompted the US and Russia to put their chips on the table.
Why are Russia and the US involved?
Since the early days of the Syrian Civil War, the US has been closely involved in supporting Jordan's efforts to contain instability and spillover from the conflict. Jordan has hosted one million Syrian refugees and the US has been a major financial supporter of Jordan's efforts. Similarly, the US worked on a clandestine program to help train and support Syrian rebels via Jordan.
US President Donald Trump sought to end that program in July 2017, at the same time the US chose to support a cease-fire in southern Syria. The US was a guarantor of the cease-fire with Jordan, which was working with the Syrian rebels to prevent continued fighting with the regime.
The US is also interested in southern Syria for other reasons. It wants to support Israel's security concerns, which mainly involve keeping Iran away from the Golan. The US also has an anti-ISIS training program at Tanaf near the Jordan-Iraq border in Syria. With anti-ISIS operations ongoing in the Euphrates valley, the US wants this toehold in Syria and doesn't want Iran exploiting Syrian regime gains by growing its "corridor" of influence through the Syrian Desert to Iraq.
Russia's main interest in southern Syria was to sign on to the cease-fire so the Syrian regime, which Russia supports, could use the peace in the south to go after other rebel groups. Now that the regime has defeated rebels near Hama and near Damascus and pushed ISIS out of Yarmouk, the regime is setting its sights on southern Syria.
Russia has continually said it opposes "foreign" forces in Syria and that its forces would go home when the war ends. Russia wants to aid the Syrian regime to retake the rest of Syria, and if the regime wants to go south, then Russia is there to help. But Russia doesn't want to come into more tensions with Israel or the US. Therefore, the discussions about southern Syria might be held at the highest levels in Moscow and Washington.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said on Friday that as a guarantor of the agreements in southern Syria, the US would use "appropriate measures" against Assad's cease-fire violations.
Russia also speaks cryptically about southern Syria, with Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov saying only the Syrian Army should "stand at Syria's border with Israel." Non-Syrian forces should be withdrawn "on a mutual basis." Which forces exactly, he didn't specify.
What does Jordan want?
Jordan's role in southern Syria has been to support the rebels, but its primary role has been to keep its northern border stable. Jordan doesn't want a conflict on its border and more refugees. It would likely accept the Syrian regime returning to the border as long as that was in agreement with the Syrian rebels and not as a result of crushing the rebels and having them pour into the Kingdom.
Jordan wants the refugees it has been hosting for years to be able to return. They can only do so if there are reconciliation agreements between the rebels and the regime. Jordan can prod the rebels to come to an agreement. Throughout Syria the regime has come to reconciliation agreements in other cases, allowing rebels to be bussed to other areas. But where would the rebels go in southern Syria? They have nowhere to go. So this presents a problem. And is one reason that alarm bells went off in Washington to discourage the Syrian regime from its offensive.
What is the Syrian regime up to?
In December 2016, the Syrian regime took Aleppo city. Since then it has been on a roll of victories. It pushed the final rebels out of Damascus in the last few months. It feels secure and on a winning streak. However, the Syrian regime is hampered by lack of manpower and relies on Iranian-backed militias, Hezbollah and Russian air power. It needs these elements for any fighting in southern Syria. But it knows Israel opposes any Iranian involvement in the south and that there are red lines that could endanger the regime's senior members. Thus the regime would prefer to take southwestern Syria without casualties and through some agreement.
The regime has waited seven years to retake these areas and it can wait longer. It is testing the waters regarding an offensive and it doesn't actually want to launch a brutally tough offensive that will anger Israel and the US and could lead to expanded conflict. Similarly, the regime's allies in Tehran and Moscow don't want a major conflict in the south. But for the regime, victory in the south is important, because it can no longer press its way north, since Turkey is deeply involved in Syrian rebel areas in northern Syria.
The moderate rebels' last stand.
The Syrian rebels in the south are many of the last authentic elements of the Free Syrian Army's more moderate side. They are the original rebels who rose up, and they have held on to an area that has remained mostly static for years. They have built up some institutions and security in those areas. But they have not been able to make any progress through offensives.
They are also tied into Jordan, and any actions they take are closely watched by Jordan and Israel. Since last year, they have had their cease-fire agreement, and it isn't clear what they think the long-term holds.
In other areas, Syrian rebels have been willing to surrender as long as they can be evacuated or find some way to reconcile with the regime. The regime has been flexible in this respect, seeking out creative ways to get back its territory without widespread retaliations following after.
Israel doesn't want Iranian forces anywhere near the Golan, and foreign reports have indicated that since last year Israel has indicated opposition to any cease-fires in the south that allow Iran to penetrate closer than 60 km. from the Golan. After the Iranian rocket fire directed against Israel in early May, Iran's forces in Syria have suffered. They not only were targeted in air strikes, but psychologically they fear more strikes will follow. This means they also know any attempt to move south or closer to Israel will be met with force.
Israel's concerns are expressed through Washington's understanding of the situation and through Moscow. As such, any regime moves toward the southwest would be coordinated with Moscow and likely receive an understanding that Israel and the US would accept that movement. This means anything that plays out in southwest Syria is done in a very sensitive manner and has the potential to involve a crisis between Washington, Moscow, Tehran and Jerusalem. Assad's agenda in southwestern Syria therefore has a geopolitical context far beyond Damascus.
Seth Frantzman is a fellow at the Middle East Forum