Iran’s forces inch deeper into south-western Syria

Though the negotiations with Russian advisers appear to be struggling, the reconciliation deals left the opposition divided.
Sunday 15/07/2018
A Syrian boy holds the Iranian flag as a truck carrying aid provided by Iran arrives in the eastern city of Deir Ez-Zor, last September. (AFP)
For all to see. A Syrian boy holds the Iranian flag as a truck carrying aid provided by Iran arrives in the eastern city of Deir Ez-Zor, last September. (AFP)

BEIRUT - Moscow and Damascus appear to be aiming for a swift conclusion in the battle for southern Syria, spearheaded by forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. To ensure victory, Russia has a divide-and-conquer strategy regarding the rebels and is ignoring the return of pro-Iran militia, reinforcements necessary to bolster the thinned capabilities of the Syrian Army.

Pro-regime forces, backed by Russian air support, pushed further into southern Syria. Pro-Syrian Army forces gained control of Al-Mseifra and Saida in southern Syria. In the central city of Daraa, the cradle of Syria’s revolution, rebel forces handed their armament to the Syrian Army in a reconciliation deal.

In addition, pro-regime website Al-Masdar news reported that in recent days more than 27 settlements in Quneitra, Sweida and Daraa governorates had reconciled with the regime.

Before the southern offensive, Russia engaged with opposition forces to discuss “reconciliation” efforts. Early in June, Syria expert Sinan Hatahet from Turkish think-tank Omran Dirasat said seven local councils had shown a willingness to enter a reconciliation process with the regime.

Though the negotiations with Russian advisers appear to be struggling, the waves of reconciliation deals left the opposition divided. Some opposition military leaders seem inclined to cut their losses, in the absence of regional and international support, and engage with the regime Al-Masdar news reported.

A US statement in June advised Syrian rebel factions not to expect military support against the Russia-backed offensive in southern Syria. Jordan, the southern rebels’ closest ally, has closed its borders and refrained from intervening, except diplomatically.

As the advance continued, Russia ignored the creeping entry of pro-Iranian forces into regime ranks, despite a deal allegedly reached with Israel designed to keep Iran away from southern Syria. In the last few weeks, several pro-Iran militias have been spotted in the area.

That includes the Shia loyalist militia Liwa al-Baqir. Its Facebook page stated that the militia is deployed in the Lajat area south-east of Damascus. Members there received training from Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the website claimed.

“We are an auxiliary force to the Syrian Army and are deployed all over Syria, with a focus on north and west of Aleppo, Idlib, Hasakah, Deir ez-Zor and more recently Daraa,” a source within the brigade said on condition of anonymity as part of research for UAE think-tank Trends Research.

A video circulated by Iranian paramilitaries on social media showed Maher Ajeeb Jazza, the commander of the Abu Fadl al-Abbas Brigade, a movement logistically tied to Iran, touring villages in Daraa province.

In addition, the Zulfiqar Brigade militia said on its Facebook page that it was deployed alongside the Syrian Army in Tafs and Da’el in southern Syria.

That Russia has allowed the entry of pro-Iran militias in the fray, despite concerns of Moscow’s Israeli ally, indicates that the Syrian Army is either too weak to conduct a large-scale operation on its own or that Moscow is facing difficulty in reining in Iranian proxies.

Russia’s dual strategy will be successful in the short term. The opposition, beleaguered by internal divisions and surrender, cannot resist the massive onslaught. Pro-Iran militias are playing a key role in the offensive but might prove difficult to rein in if they remain in a region recognised a potentially lethal flashpoint.

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