Further escalation likely after Iranian involvement in Damascus’s offensive
TUNIS - As Damascus prepares to escalate its campaign to retake Syria’s rebel-held south-west, debate has centred on what resources the regime can direct towards the Israeli and Jordanian border and what part Iran and its Lebanese ally, Hezbollah, may play.
Israeli intolerance towards Iran and its auxiliaries’ presence in Syria has been growing and clashes between Israeli and Iranian forces in Syria likewise increasing. Since a confrontation between Israel and Iran in February, which resulted in the downing of an Israeli F-16, to the firing of two suspected Israeli missiles at Damascus in late June, Israel’s willingness to strike at Iran and its proxies within Syria has become unarguable.
In south-western Syria, close to the Golan Heights, Russian negotiators scramble for a last minute reconciliation deal with the rebels, as Syrian artillery pounds their positions around Daraa and Russin aircraft reportedly provide air support ahead of the regime’s anticipated escalation.
However, with much of Syria returned to some degree of regime control, troop numbers to police captured areas and carry the advance into the south-west are limited.
“Iran has demonstrated again and again that [it wants] to get to the Golan. It’s a grand strategic necessity for them,” said Philip Smyth, Soref fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “[Syrian President Bashar] Assad has tried repeatedly to demonstrate his freedom to operate in Syria without Iranian support but there is hardly any aspect of regime operations Tehran doesn’t have its talons in.”
Expecting a showdown between two of its key allies in the Middle East, Russia sought to broker a compromise, insisting in May that Hezbollah and Iran withdraw from Israel’s and Jordan’s borders.
The UK-based Syrian Observatory of Human Rights reported that Hezbollah was withdrawing its forces but there was no indication that Iran was doing so. Whether Hezbollah was withdrawing was in doubt when the Wall Street Journal reported Hezbollah fighters in the area were switching from Hezbollah to Syrian Army uniforms.
Tehran’s sleight of hand notwithstanding, what is accepted in Tel Aviv will be what counts. “The Israelis have made it abundantly clear they don’t believe any of this,” Smyth said, “They’re under no illusions over Iranian and Hezbollah’s intentions. Instead, they’ve accepted the fact that Iran is going to be part of the attack. For now, that means more missile strikes and more aggressive military action targeted at anything even believed to be Iran-linked.”
Given Iran’s and Hezbollah’s penetration into the Syrian Army and its militias, “I’m not even sure how close they’ll let Assad get to the Israeli border. This is really going to test their mettle,” Smyth said.
With Iran and its allies limiting their visibility and exposure to Israeli attacks: “It’s going to be hard for Assad to project power that far south. They’ve got pretty old equipment, and, in light of who the neighbours are, Russian air support is going to be limited. Look at past campaigns the regime had to fight largely unaided. They took years.” Smyth concluded.
Assad’s shelling campaign is evidence of the likely horror to come. The United Nations said 45,000 citizens had fled to the closed Jordanian border amid reports of strikes on residential areas, hospitals and the use of barrel bombs.
Uninhibited by the United States, which has pledged not to intervene, and Russia’s nervousness over fully committing its air force so close to the Israeli border, Damascus’s advance promises to be long and torturous.
“Let us be aware of what this would mean,” UN Special Envoy for Syria Staffan de Mistura warned the UN Security Council on June 27. “If the south-west sees a full-scale battle to the end, it could be like eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta combined together.”
“We… cannot allow… this to become another Ghouta, another Douma or another Aleppo, where so many civilians were sacrificed and died and yet I see things moving in this direction,” he said.