Rebels in southern Syria who were once backed by the United States fear a new offensive by President Bashar Assad’s forces, one that risks igniting a wider conflict.
A government push to the south could bring allied Iranian and Russian forces even closer to the increasingly tense frontier with Israel, and to U.S. forces based further to the east. A breakdown in security across the region, which has been largely quiet in recent months following a cease-fire brokered by the U.S., Russia and Jordan, could also provide an opening for Islamic State militants to regroup.
For years, rebel forces known as the Southern Front received covert U.S. arms, funding and training to help them fight both the Syrian government and IS. But President Donald Trump ended the CIA program last year to try and extricate the U.S. from the civil war, an effort that was again thrown into doubt when an alleged chemical attack this month prompted U.S. and allied airstrikes against Assad’s forces.
A “de-escalation” agreement reached last summer meanwhile appears to be breaking down. Government airstrikes rained down on the southern Daraa province in March after an eight-month lull. Thousands of people fled the stricken areas and have yet to return, fearing a renewed onslaught, according to opposition activists and community leaders.
“Southern Syria is living on a sea of rumors that will turn into a reality soon,” said Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an activist in Daraa. “The (rebel) Free Syrian Army is getting ready as the regime and Russia send threats. America and Israel are beating the drums of war with strikes against Assad.”
Those fears deepened after Bashar Assad’s forces recaptured the eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus earlier this month after a devastating offensive and the suspected chemical attack. Many now wonder where Assad’s forces, supported by Iranian-backed militias and Russian air power, will strike next.
Israel has repeatedly warned Iran and its proxies to stay away from the border. It has carried out more than a hundred airstrikes in Syria since the war began in 2011, and is believed to have carried out an airstrike on a Syrian base earlier this month that killed seven Iranian military personnel. In February, Israel launched a wave of airstrikes in Syria after it intercepted an Iranian drone that had infiltrated its airspace, and an Israeli F-16 was downed upon its return from Syria.
“The Iranian octopus is trying to strangle us and break our spirit. But Israel is stronger than them,” Cabinet Minister Naftali Bennett said at a ceremony marking Israel’s Memorial Day on Tuesday. “From here I tell the leaders of Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah: Do not try us.”
The Syrian government may calculate that a push to the south is worth the risk. The main border crossing with Jordan has been closed since insurgents seized the Syrian side in 2015, shutting off vital trade routes linking Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Jordan has said it will only reopen the crossing if the Syrian government controls the other side.
Jordan’s priorities are stability, border security, and keeping both extremist groups and Iranian militias at bay – interests that the U.S. and Israel share.
“Southern Syria’s primary concern for us is Jordan’s stability,” said Henry Wooster, charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Jordan. He said American, Russian and Jordanian officials engage regularly on the mission to “de-conflict” southern Syria through a monitoring center in Amman.
But similar “de-escalation” arrangements have been violated or broken down entirely in other parts of Syria. A cease-fire in eastern Ghouta came to an abrupt end in February when the Syrian government and its Russian allies launched a massive operation, eventually forcing rebels there to surrender or relocate to northern Syria. The rebels gave up their last holdout, the town of Douma, after the alleged April 7 chemical attack.
The Eastern Lions Brigade, a rebel group that received covert U.S. support until late last year, fears a similar scenario in the south. In recent months, the group has retreated from attacks by government forces as well as IS militants, and is now largely confined to an area further east near the rebel-held al-Tanf military base, where U.S. special operations forces are housed.
“It will be an easy bite for the regime. There is no protection. They are exposed,” said the rebel group’s spokesman, Younis Salameh.
At the al-Tanf base, near Syria’s borders with Iraq and Jordan, a separate Pentagon-funded effort to aid the rebels is still underway. The U.S. presence there is seen as crucial to preventing the completion of an overland route linking Iranian-backed forces from Tehran all the way to southern Lebanon — and Israel’s doorstep.
Complicating matters even further is the lingering IS presence in the sprawling deserts and scattered villages of southern Syria.
“We were protecting our whole area from Daesh,” said Saeed Seif, a spokesman for the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade, referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. “Now we’ve lost so much, and we’re only hiding and working on security for Rukban,” a squalid camp for displaced people near the Jordanian border.
Both the Syrian government and the U.S.-led coalition are likely to seize upon the militants’ presence to launch expanded operations in southern Syria, said Rami Abdurrahman, whose Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights closely monitors the conflict.
“It will be a wide offensive on several fronts,” he said, with the coalition’s “real intention” being to cut the Iranian corridor.
The looming battles have stoked fear among the hundreds of thousands of Syrians living in the south, who have already suffered from years of conflict.
“The people are living in tension and there is displacement within the provinces,” said Mohammad al-Migdad, a member of the Daraa provincial council. “There is fear — deep, deep fear.”