Syrian regime advance risks humanitarian disaster

For nearly two weeks, regime forces and their Russian allies have battered rebel-held parts of southern Syria.
Wednesday 04/07/2018
Internally displaced boy from Deraa province sits on a bicycle near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in Quneitra, Syria June 21, 2018. (Reuters)
Internally displaced boy from Deraa province sits on a bicycle near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, in Quneitra, Syria June 21, 2018. (Reuters)

TUNIS - The Syrian regime and its Russian allies are continuing their advance into Syria’s south-west, pushing a wave of displaced people ahead of their offensive and ratcheting up the pressure on the closed Jordanian and Israeli borders. 

The United Nations said on Monday that more than a quarter of a million people had fled Damascus’s advance, 70,000 of which are said to have made their way to the Jordanian border with “thousands” seeking refuge in the occupied Golan Heights close to the Israeli frontier. 

For nearly two weeks, regime forces and their Russian allies have battered rebel-held parts of southern Syria with air strikes, rocket fire and barrel bombs.

“We were expecting the number of displaced in southern Syria to reach 200,000, but it has already exceeded 270,000 people in record time,” said UNHCR spokesman in Amman Mohammad Hawari.“We’re facing a real humanitarian crisis in southern Syria."

Despite mounting pressure, Jordan has kept its border closed, insisting that its ailing economy cannot support any more than the 650,000 registered Syrian refugees who have already gained refuge within its frontiers. 

Israel also shows no sign of opening its borders, with The Times of Israel highlighting the possibility that Hezbollah and other Shia fighters are hiding within the refugees’ midst.  

Syria’s south-west, and the city of Daraa, the cradle of the revolution, in particular has long been a thorn in the regime's side. Given its borders with both Jordan and Israel, much of the area was subject to a de-escalation agreement signed off on last year by the US, Russia and Jordan. However, the same frontiers that contain the potential for unchecked regional escalation make Syria’s south a prized target for the Assad regime. In addition to regaining control of the area bordering Israel, the south holds the possibility of reopening a vital Jordanian trade route to Amman and the GCC countries beyond, a vital source of revenue for cash-strapped Damascus looking to rebuild much of shattered Syria.  

However, the stakes remain high. Several world powers have expressed concern over the regime’s action in Syria’s south-west, not least the United States, which warned of  “serious repercussions” should Damascus breach the de-escalation agreement, but has since remained silent. 

In the absence of any Western intervention, Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi flew to Moscow on Tuesday to call for a ceasefire to prevent the humanitarian disaster unfolding upon his country’s border from deteriorating further. 

The region's volatility appears to be reflected in the reconciliation deal being offered by Russian negotiators to the intransigent towns and villages holding out against the regime’s advance. In contrast to previous reconciliation deals, there would be no mass population transfer to Syria’s north, with rebels being offered the opportunity to remain within their homes and retain their light weaponry. Syrian state institutions would also resume work, returning regime infrastructure to the disputed areas.

Displaced families could also return with their safety guaranteed by Russian military police.

Moreover, those who defected from Syria’s armed forces or who did not complete their compulsory military service would be offered the opportunity to regularise their status with the regime within six months, AFP reported.

So far, over a dozen towns and villages have agreed to the deal, doubling the area under government control in the main province of Daraa to 60% since operations began on June 19.

However, despite their gains, the regime’ success remains qualified. In a statement Monday, the civilian half of the opposition’s delegation said they had withdrawn from talks.

“We did not attend negotiations today. We were not party to any agreement and we never will be,” said the statement, accusing those who agreed to the handovers of pursuing personal interests.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on Monday there were “divisions among rebel groups” over whether to agree to the terms proposed by Russia.

Many residents also expressed concern that any deal agreed with Russia would be violated later on by the regime, Daraa activist Omar Hariri told AFP.

Others feared worse, with Ahmad Arsheedat, 48, a displaced man from Daraa city telling the agency: “I absolutely do not support reconciliation because the Iranian and Russian militias will come in, wanting to slaughter us all.”

“They won’t leave a single person alive, especially here in Daraa, the cradle of the revolution.”

Daraa activist Hariri said rebels and opposition entities were facing a very difficult choice.

“The noose is getting tighter and tighter,” he said.

Eight towns fell to regime control on Saturday and another five on Sunday, including the key town of Bosra al-Sham.

Bosra al-Sham had previously been held by one of the region’s most powerful rebel groups, Shabab al-Sunna. Its willingness to agree to a deal has provoked fierce criticism of its leader, Ahmad Al-Awdeh.

Rebel supporters repeatedly referred to him as a “traitor” in posts on Twitter.