How the Daraa Offensive Will Change America's Presence in Syria
by Asha Castleberry
Published July 16, 2018
Since the Syrian regime, led by Bashar Al-Assad, initiated an offensive on Daraa this June, the city and governorate of the same name has attracted much international attention.
Why is this move such a big deal in the Syrian Civil War?
Daraa is a city located in the southern province of the Daraa Governorate bordering both the nation of Jordan and the contested Golan Heights. The area is located within the de-escalation zone that was established by the United States, Russia, Jordan, and Israel in July 2017. The de-escalation zone included humanitarian corridors and was protected by a ceasefire agreement.
Daraa is today considered to be the last standing anti-Damascus rebel enclave located in Southern Syria. If victory is achieved, this will enable Al-Assad to consolidate more power in Syria, ultimately defeating U.S. interests.
Along with al-Assad’s offensive, Russia also violated the ceasefire agreement by commencing airstrikes in mid-June. So far, there is very little deterring Russian and Syrian regime forces from continuing their campaign inside the de-escalation zone. This offensive was made possible by the successes that pro-regime forces had achieved on the Eastern Ghouta frontline. Instead of initiating a counter-offensive in Idlib, the Syrian regime continued advancing south avoiding a less difficult mission.
Damascus has claimed that the purpose of the offensive is to eradicate terrorist forces in Daraa. Pro-regime forces have targeted opposition groups, mainly the Southern Front.
Important to note is that the anti-Damascus government rebel groups are a diverse and loosely based assembly. Within its ranks are the remnants of the western supported Free Syrian Army (FSA) sub-group called the Southern Front (SF). The Southern Front consists of several local tribal groups and former Syrian Arab Army (SAA) members, and has largely been in control over the Daraa Governorate since June 2015. The SF has co-existed in Daraa with several Salafist Jihadist groups that they are now finding themselves fighting alongside the SF against advancing Syrian regime forces.
One such Jihadist group is Tahrir al Sham, which used to operate under the name al Nusra and is part of the al Qaeda presence in Syria. In addition to this al Qaeda affiliated group, are also several other groups that have dubious alignments with more extreme religious affiliations. However, what unifies them is their will, temporary or not, to fight against a totalitarian dictatorship in the shape of the Assad-led Damascus government.
The Damascus government also wants to regain control over the Nassib border crossing, a vital trading hub linking to Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq, and the Gulf States. In addition, Damascus sought to regain areas near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, which has exacerbated tensions with Israel. Already, Israel has responded by attacking several Syrian regime positions, claiming that Syria needs to respect Israel’s sovereignty. Plus, one of Israel’s top priorities is to ensure that Iran does not regain influence in the southern parts of Syria. Prior to the Daara offensive, Israel has been very active in attacking the Iranian supported militia presence in Syria.
Syrian government forces have gained significant ground, having initially swept through key terrain in northeastern Daraa. There is growing speculation that pro-regime forces have regained key areas such as the town of Busra al Harir, other surrounding villages and are approaching Nassib crossing.
On June 26th, the Arab League had called for a halt in military escalation due to alarming humanitarian conditions. The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has reported that the total number of displaced now stood at more than 320,000 with 60,000 gathered at the border crossing with Jordan. The growing refugee flow into the Syrian-Jordanian border is extremely problematic for Jordan as it is currently in favor of a returnee immigration policy and temporarily closed down the Jordanian border.
In early July, as a result of ongoing pressure along the Jordanian border, Amman initiated a ceasefire negotiation between Syria, Russia and the opposition groups. So far, it appears that the Syrian government and the Russians entered peace negotiations with an upper hand. The Syrian government has repeatedly demanded that the rebel groups surrender and hand over their heavy weapons, which include anti-air weaponry, while continuously conducting intensive airstrikes over Daara. Also, there is speculation that the Russians orchestrated a semi-weak reconciliation agreement with some rebel groups urging them to move to the Idlib Governorate.
Victory in Daraa will embolden Damascus to initiate more counter-offensive missions in the Idlib Governorate and Northeastern Syria, seeking to recapture the entirety of Syria. After Daraa, the pro-regime forces will most likely try to recapture Idlib as part of their coastal operations, and shift all of their attention to northeastern Syria. However, northeastern Syria will be more difficult.
In eastern Syria, the Kurdish People’s Protection Unit (YPG) still controls key areas. The YPG is a major component in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) coalition in the Western-backed offensive against the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). However, the YPG is still vulnerable to a possible counter-offensive from pro-regime forces.
There is growing speculation that pro-regime forces will initiate a major counteroffensive in Eastern Syria. Damascus is already setting the conditions by trying to shake up the relationship between the U.S. and the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD), which is the political leadership of the YPG. After the recent Manbij agreement between the U.S. and Turkey, PYD made an unprecedented move by considering negotiating with Damascus for security guarantees. Despite this, it remains vital that the U.S. curb the pro-regime efforts in Daraa and the rest of Syria. If the coalition fails to deter Damascus’ expansion campaign, all of the areas that the U.S.-led coalition helped liberate from ISIS may fall under the influence of Syria, Iran, and Russia.
The U.S. should follow the same playbook as Russia in Daara. Just as Russia provided air support to the pro-regime forces, the U.S. should reverse its position and provide support to the Southern Front. Strong U.S. support would disrupt Damascus from further penetrating the Southern Province and possibly discourage future counter-offensives in Eastern Syria. Furthermore, the Daara counteroffensive underpins the need for a coherent U.S. strategy in Syria, which is still lacking.
Moving forward, the U.S. should support a strategy that doesn’t diminish its presence in Syria. Senator Lindsey Graham’s policy recommendation is that there should be no future U.S. troop withdrawal in northeastern Syria, and the U.S. should continue to work with both Turkey and the YPG in order to push back against Iran and ISIS. Further U.S. troop withdrawal would be a counterproductive move that could badly impact U.S. interests in Iraq, allowing Iran to rebuild its arc of influence extending from Iran to Lebanon.
Asha Castleberry is an adjunct faculty professor at Fordham University. She teaches U.S. Foreign Policy, International Politics, and United Nations Peace Operations. She is a U.S. Army Veteran and she served for Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve in Iraq and Kuwait.