Fighting flares on Syria’s southern front

Friday 05/02/2016
Free Syrian Army fighters shelling forces loyal to Syria’s President Bashar Assad in Deraa

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”.