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America's modest success in Syria, and why it's under threat

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The US and its Arab partners have had some success backing rebels in southern Syria. But if the Assad regime wins in Aleppo, it could turn toward the south – changing the complexion of the war. 

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    Free Syrian army fighters stand atop a hill in the south of Nawa city in Daraa Governorate, Syria, on Aug. 16.
    Alaa Al-Faqir/Reuters/File
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The lone bright spot for United States-backed rebels in Syria could soon come under threat if the Russian-backed Assad regime continues to gain momentum.

For three years, some 30,000 vetted rebels have been operating in large swaths of the south. Supplied and directed by a coalition that includes the US, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, 57 militias known as the Southern Front have at times been the most effective fighting force in Syria.

Yet since mid-2015, Saudi Arabia has cut funding and Washington has shifted its focus to the Islamic State, according to rebel sources and officials close to the coalition’s Military Operations Command in Amman, Jordan.

The result has been a southern stalemate, with the rebels unable to advance, and the Assad regime tied down in the north in Aleppo. But surgical regime raids in January, backed by Russian airpower, gave a sense of what could happen if Assad forces turned their attention southward: The strategic town of Sheikh Maskin fell and rebel supply lines were cut.

In that way, the battle for Aleppo is about more than the enormously significant northern city itself. It is about whether President Bashar al-Assad will be able pivot to the south.

If he does, the war could splinter in new ways. From the coalition’s investment in the Southern Front to sensitive questions about Syria’s southern border with Jordan and Israel, the conflict could become more international – drawing in a new set of players and tensions.

“If Aleppo falls and we are left on our own, the regime will reoccupy the south and everything will be lost,” says Abdul Hadi Sari, a former Syrian Air Force general and a member of the Southern Front’s Daraa military council.

“That is when the true crisis will begin.”

Jordan and Israel

The southern front in the five-year Syrian conflict has recently been the quietest. But officials and experts warn it could become the most intractable, in large part because of the dynamics along Syria’s southern borders.

Jordan, for example, has put all factions on notice: Its border area is a red line. It has worked with rebels to keep fighting between six and 12 miles away from the border and has managed refugee flows, according to rebels and officials.

“Any action that will push refugees towards our border with Syria or push fighting to our border will be considered an act of war by Jordan,” says Mohammed Momani, Jordanian government spokesman and minister of media affairs.

To back up such talk, Jordan has used missile strikes to attack vehicles, tanks, and groups approaching too close to its borders.

Jordan is determined not only to prevent a spill-over of fighting, but also the potential flight of thousands of militants – many of whom are from Jordan –into its territory under the guise of refugees.

Jordanian officials stress that it is impossible to overstate the sensitivity of its borders.

For Israel, an even greater threat may reach its borders: Hezbollah. The Lebanese Shiite militant movement, locked in a war with Israel, has deployed more than 2,000 fighters to the south multiple times to aid Assad regime counteroffensives against the powerful militant group Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, as well as the Southern Front.

But Israel sees Hezbollah doing more than assisting the regime. It sees Hezbollah as seeking to open a new front in its war on Israel.

Israeli soldiers train in the Israeli controlled Golan Heights near the Israel-Syria border in 2015. Ariel Schalit/AP/File

“Clearly, Hezbollah and its masters would like to extend the confrontation line Israel has with Lebanon all the way to the Golan,” says Itamar Rabinovich, professor at Tel Aviv University and former chief Israeli negotiator with Syria.

“This is something Israel is determined to prevent.”

The complicated web of international interests in the south make it a potential powder keg.

“In the south you have the triangulation of Israeli and Jordanian interest against a host of Syrian interests that can no longer be considered one country,” says Andrew Tabler, Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The north is also complicated as well, but there is more resistance to Iranian-backed groups in the south by Israel and Jordan.”

Russia

Complicating the picture is Russia.

Recognizing Russia’s reemergence as a player in Syria, both Jordan and Israel were quick to reach out to Moscow.

The Jordanians have reportedly established a deconfliction center with the Russians to prevent miscommunications or mishaps between Russian fighter jets and Jordanian border forces. A similar arrangement between Israel and Russia includes a “direct line” between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin, according to reports.

Yet feelings of distrust persist.

Missile systems installed by Russia in Syria put nearly all of Israel and much of Jordan in range. And Russian jets have violated Israeli airspace repeatedly, experts say.

Jordanian officials have privately expressed “frustration” over Russia’s unilateral bombing of both Sheikh Maskin and, later, of CIA-backed rebels near the Jordanian border.

So far, dialogue has kept tensions down. But the concern is that things could change once Aleppo is resolved.

“There is no allusion that Russia will adhere to these deals, Russia will follow its best interests without caution,” says Jennifer Cafarella, a Syria expert at the Institute for the Study of War.

ISIS

Amid all this jockeying, the Islamic State looms as a wild card.

Islamic State branches in southern Syria are much different than they are elsewhere. In other parts of Syria, the group seized territory by force. But in southern Syria, the Islamic State grew organically. Breakaway rebel groups pledged allegiance one-by-one.

Rather than confront the regime openly, these Islamic State branches have so far limited themselves to taking advantage of rebel losses, swooping in behind regime advances to secure more territory.

Should rebel forces be routed, Islamic State territory could expand along Jordan and the Golan to the West, say rebel forces and Jordanian officials. On the verge of losing Raqqa, its capital in Syria, the Islamic State could migrate south.

“If the regime wins the south, many [militants] will go for a third path – Al Qaeda or Daesh,” says Mr. Sari, the former Syrian Air Force general, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

The Southern Front’s lack of progress during the past year has already left many Syrian civilians disillusioned with the mainstream rebels.

“We want to fight the regime, defend ourselves from the regime, and defeat the regime,” says Mohammed, a 25-year-old from Daraa, who is considering throwing his support behind Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, formerly known as the Nusra Front. “We are ready to join hands with Nusra, or Daesh, or even the devil itself to get rid of Assad.”

With proper heavy arms, the Southern Front claims it can rout the comparatively smaller Islamic State forces in “two to three days.” However, concerns of arms falling into the hands of the Islamic State or Nusra has left the MOC reluctant to heavily back the Southern Front.

Rebels of the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army man a weapon in the Deraa countryside in 2015. Reuters/File

What happens next might depend on the next US president.

US backing is seen as essential for wider Israeli or Jordanian military strikes, the establishment of a safety zone or no-fly-zone in the south, or any resistance to Russian maneuvers.

Short of that, officials in the region say they will act on their own if they are forced to.

“We are operating without leadership from the [United States] … and we are at times powerless,” says one Jordanian government official. “But if our stability is threatened, we will act.” 

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