The uprising against Bashar al-Assad began in the southern city of Deraa in 2011, which has since been described as the cradle of the Syrian revolution. The rebels in Deraa did not board busses to Idlib on Turkey’s border as their compatriots in Aleppo, Ghouta, and elsewhere did. Instead, they chose to stay put with their arms in their homes. While some are planning long-term resistance, others hope that anti-Iran regional players will see them as useful and keep them afloat. But the region is expected to remain unpredictable as the regime and the rebels fight a protracted battle and the possibility of a regional conflict with Israel looms large.
Two years after Russia mediated a reconciliation agreement between the rebel groups and the Syrian regime in southern Syria, the region remains deeply divided along several fault lines. An insurgency against the regime is picking pace, Russia and Iran backed divisions in the Syrian Arab Army have clashed for dominance, and Israel is worried about Iran’s ability to challenge it all the way from South Lebanon to southern Syria. The region is a powder keg and perhaps the first foreign policy challenge for Biden’s presidency.
Last year, Israel dropped pamphlets in the Syrian cities of Deraa and Qunietra. They asked locals to oppose Hezbollah and Iran in the region or pay a heavy price. “Your life is more valuable than Iran’s money. Anyone who collaborates with Hezbollah or Iran will be targeted,” the pamphlets said. It reflected Israel’s concerns and its determination to respond to threats.
While on the border an Israeli-Iranian conflict plays out, inside the cities in southern Syria the people are challenging Bashar al-Assad’s regime.
While on the border an Israeli-Iranian conflict plays out, inside the cities in southern Syria the people are challenging Bashar al-Assad’s regime. They want to retain the autonomy, albeit limited, granted under the reconciliation deal. While some rebel groups were allowed to keep their weapons, others like Ahmad al Awdeh’s group were lured by Russia to join the 8th division of Russia-controlled 5th corps of the Syrian Arab Army. These measures were intended to give the restive population a feeling of security against the regime and to assuage Israeli concerns on the border. The presence of former rebels would continue to act as a buffer between Israel and Iranian militias in the region.
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While Iran said it won’t intervene in southern Syria, Israel believes Iranian forces never left and are holding their positions to attack Israel in a future war. To mitigate the threat, Tel Aviv has hit alleged Iranian facilities in Syria over 100 times, and the last such attack was carried out on January 6. Moreover, the 4th division of the Syrian Arab Army – led by Bashar al-Assad’s staunchly pro-Iran brother Maher al Assad – has been repeatedly violating the terms of the agreement to slowly reclaim complete control of the territory conceded to rebels.
The regime forces arrested the rebels as they crossed the government run checkpoints. They also assassinated many rebels and their supporters. The rebels responded with equal force and killed state soldiers or abducted them to seek the release of their arrested colleagues. More than half of those killed are reportedly affiliated to the regime.
Omar Al-Hourani, a local media activist, told Inside Arabia that the rebels had been assassinated even after they joined the reconciliation agreement. “There is never calm in the south,” he said. “As we receive news of the regime releasing a batch of detainees, we also hear news of fresh arrests of rebels.”
Many rebels or those who supported the rebels, and those who supported the regime or the reconciliation deal, are terrified of stepping out of their villages.
For security reasons, a rebel fighter with the Free Syrian Army spoke to Inside Arabia on the condition of anonymity. According to him, the government never had any intentions to share power with the opposition. “The regime wants to eliminate us. That is their end goal,” he said. Many rebels or those who supported the rebels, and those who supported the regime or the reconciliation deal, are terrified of stepping out of their villages, fearing arrest, assassination, or both by the warring sides. The cities and villages in southern Syria have turned into prisons.
The Ahmad al-Audeh-led and Russia-backed 8th division has often mediated between the regime and the rebels. At times, however, it has also been caught in a conflict with the Iran-backed 4th division. Abu Maher, a rebel who was forced to rejoin the Syrian Arab Army and join the 4th division against his will, recounted the clashes.
“Some clashes took place between Russia and Iran backed army divisions in the villages near Daraa. Before these clashes, a bus carrying soldiers of the 5th corps, supported by Russia, was blown up,” Abu Maher told Inside Arabia. He also brought to light a bewildering restructuring of the armed forces.
“I was a member of the moderate rebel force the Free Syrian Army and my loyalties are still with them. But after reconciliation, I was made to join the pro-Iran 4th division in the name of national unity. But these 4th division generals want to kill the remaining rebels of the Free Syrian Army, one of them is me. Can you explain how this will ever work?” he asked rhetorically.
As Biden takes charge, his administration will have to focus on mitigating the risk of greater regional confrontation. Some observers believe that Biden must link reentering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with Iran’s withdrawal from the Syrian conflict.