Syria Moves Troops Ahead of New Offensive in Southwest, Jordan Concerned

The Syrian government is deploying its military forces in southern Syria, in preparation for a looming offensive against the southern governorates of Daraa and Quneitra, as confrontation in the north and northeast are winding down. Abdulllah Nassar, a member of the White Helmets in Daraa, told VOA that people are bracing themselves for the offensive.

“The Free Syrian Army is on alert, and everyone is planning for a battle,” Nassar said.

The Syrian regime continues to drop leaflets in the area urging armed opposition and civilians to follow the footsteps of the rebels who evacuated eastern Ghouta. Local activists shared images of the leaflets on social media. In an attempt to control strategic Lajat hill in eastern Daraa, the Syrian army is trying to divide the armed opposition-controlled area in the south into two.

Syrian officials have visited the government-controlled areas in the south. This comes two days after Syrian Minister of Defense Ali Abdullah Ayyoub visited the southern area to check the preparations for the offense, according to Syrian State Media (SANA). One of the most popular among the regime’s supporters is Tiger Forces, or Qawat Al-Nimr, led by Suheil al-Hassan. Established in 2013, the Tiger Forces became an important force for Syria and Russia.

The Syrian army also stepped up shelling of opposition-held parts of the southwest as it mobilises for a campaign to regain the area bordering Jordan and the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, opposition sources said.Violence erupted at the frontline town of Kafr Shams, near the Syrian-held Golan Heights, and further east in the town of Busra al Harir, which was struck by dozens of mortars from nearby army positions, the sources said.

Syrian state media said militants had escalated attacks on civilians in the area which is part of a “deescalation” zone agreed by the United States and Russia last year with the aim of containing the conflict in the southwest. An offensive in the southwest would risk a major escalation of the seven-year-old war. The area is of strategic importance to Israel, which is deeply alarmed by Iranian influence inSyria. Washington has warned it will take “firm and appropriate measures” in response to violations of the “deescalation” deal.

U.S.-allied Jordan is increasingly worried about a spillover of violence and has been engaged in stepped up diplomatic efforts to preserve the deescalation zone which it also helped to broker last year, a Jordanian source said as quoted by Haaretz. Jordan brokered a cease-fire agreement in southern Syria between the U.S. and Russia in July 2017.

But the Syrian government has not agreed to the deescalation agreement, despite the fact that its ally, Russia, was a party to the deal. The Syrian government continues to drop leaflets in the area giving armed opposition two choices — surrender or die. The U.S. Department of State has issued a statement expressing its concerns toward the impending escalation by the Syrian government in the southwest deescalation zone, warning of “firm and appropriate measures” against the Syrian government’s violation of the cease-fire, and holding Russia responsible to compel the Syrian government to the agreement.

Israel and Jordan are trying to avoid a new conflict on their borders with Syria. While Israel is concerned about Iran’s military presence close to its borders with Syria, Jordan is concerned about another influx of refugees. Rebels say Iranian-backed fighters allied to President Bashar al-Assad have boosted their numbers in the area, though a commander in the regional alliance fighting in support of Assad denied Tehran-aligned forces had a big presence there.

Elite government troops known as the “Tiger” force, which have spearheaded a campaign that recaptured the Eastern Ghouta region near Damascus, have also been mobilised for the attack. The pro-Damascus newspaper al-Watan said there were “growing indications about preparations for the start of a wide military operation to liberate” the south.

Daily Sabah, on the other hand, writes that in recent days, the news about Syria has started largely focusing on the increasing tensions between Israel and Iran. The former claims that Iranian presence poses a direct threat to its existence, whereas the latter continues making anti-Israel statements. The recent victory of Hezbollah in Lebanon and the claims that Iran was increasing its military presence near the Golan Heights, which are under Israeli occupation, have alarmed Israel.

Since the war broke out, Israel had been silently carrying out aerial strikes in Syria, mainly targeting the regime and Iranian bases. This time, Israel seems very determined to erase the Iranian presence as it openly informed the media about the aerial operations.

The international coalitions in Syria seem to be changing. Russia, for instance, has remained intact against Israeli aggression, despite its struggles. Russia is not an eager supporter of Iran, yet has been continuing the alliance in the sake of saving the regime. Russia may fear that in the absence of Iran, which has been the main supplier of man-power for the regime, opposition groups may be encouraged to expand their control zones. On the other side, the U.S., under the presidency of Donald Trump, has solely focused on curbing Iran’s power and therefore has increased its cooperation with Israel in the region.

At the same time, the Gulf countries, under the leadership of Saudi Arabia have been following a bitter policy against Iran, which is unfolding into an undeclared alliance between the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia. It is certain that the Gulf’s main target is not the Syrian regime but Iran. Thus, it may be expected that specific attacks and threats in rhetoric may lead to a major confrontation between Israel and Iran in Syria.