Fighting flares on Syria’s southern front
DAMASCUS - Syrian President Bashar Assad’s army and its allies, heavily backed by Russian air power, made limited, short-lived advances in southern Syria, taking advantage of in-fighting among rebels who control the area.
However, the army’s victory was mostly erased when rebels put their dispute aside and launched a counteroffensive that allowed them to retake some recently lost areas.
The battlefield moves shifted attention to the southern front, following the regime’s recent significant advances in the north, and signalled a change in the dynamics of the lengthy war.
Assad’s southern victories bolster the regime’s belief that it is dealing from a position of strength and needs to make few concessions to its opponents. But the battle in the south takes the conflict to the doorsteps of key US allies Jordan and Israel.
It also intensifies the swelling power struggle between Sunni Muslim Saudi Arabia, one of the major supporters of Syria’s largely Sunni rebels, and Shia Iran, which provides much of the military muscle for Assad’s quasi-Shia regime.
On January 26th, the Syrian army and a large force of fighters from Lebanon’s Hezbollah advanced behind ferocious Russian air strikes and recaptured the strategic town of Sheikh Maskin from a rebel alliance of Islamists and the Southern Front, which is made up of “moderates” backed by the United States and Jordan.
Seizing Sheikh Maskin, a key base for the US-backed “moderate” Syrian rebels trained in Jordan since 2014, was the most significant triumph for the regime in the month-old offensive.
From there, Assad’s forces now threaten the provincial capital of Deraa, 23km to the south on the Jordanian border and a major prize.
The rebels quickly retaliated and pushed back into Sheikh Maskin on January 28th, taking over buildings in the neighbourhood’s north-western edge, near the rebel-held town of Nawa, 12km away.
Military analyst Hassan Hassan told The Arab Weekly that Nawa and Abtaa, 4km south, could be the next targets for the Syrian Army. Rebel groups recently shifted their bases there.
The regime’s advances mean that it is increasingly severing operational and logistical links between the southern rebels and those holding territory around Damascus, the Syrian capital and seat of Assad’s power.
Assad’s offensive in the south marks a significant departure for the Russians, who had largely concentrated their air power in northern Syrian since beginning their intervention in September to save the Assad regime from collapse at a critical juncture in the multisided war.
The Russians, who operated secret intelligence-gathering bases in the south to monitor Israel before the war, may be taking a calculated risk by mounting air strikes close to Israel’s border, where it recently bolstered defences. A reconstituted infantry brigade was deployed there along with Iron Dome air-defence missile units.
“For Israel, sustained Russian air activity near its border would be a worrisome signal,” observed analyst Naday Pollak of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If Hezbollah and Iran use Russian air cover to move closer to the border, they will cross one of Israel’s red lines.”
Iran — with Russia, Assad’s key foreign ally — and Hezbollah have long sought to establish a military presence in the area, possibly including the deployment of large missile forces to threaten Israel, essentially extending Hezbollah’s frontline with the Jewish state eastward onto the Golan plateau.
In January 2015, an Iranian general and Jihad Mughniyeh — son of Hezbollah’s notorious military chief Imad Mughniyeh — were killed in an Israeli air strike near the war-battered city of Quneitra, the former provincial capital.
The younger Mughniyeh was reportedly in charge of establishing Hezbollah operations in the Golan. His successor there, veteran operative Samir Kuntar, died in a missile strike near Damascus on December 19th that was attributed to Israel.
An Israeli diplomat based in the Middle East told The Arab Weekly that the Jewish state “will not sit idle if the militants move closer to our border”.
He declined to discuss details but said the Israelis prefer the return of Assad’s army to the south to prevent the Islamic State (ISIS) establishing a presence in a region where Israel has occupied part of the Golan Heights plateau since 1967 and annexed it in 1981.
“Better the devil you know,” said the diplomat, observing that Israel’s border with Syria had been the quietest of all the Jewish state’s post-1967 war frontiers with Arab states until the war erupted in March 2011.
For Jordan, a regime takeover of the south could be disastrous. It would likely trigger another flood of refugees across the border, intensifying the drain on the kingdom’s resources. Jordan already hosts around 1.3 million refugees and fears that ISIS has sleeper cells among them.
A Jordanian security official told The Arab Weekly that Syria’s southern border and control of Deraa “is of the utmost importance to us because it can keep violence and instability away from us”.