De-escalation Deal Means Tricky Transition for Southern Syria Rebels; Terrorism Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 16


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In early July, the United States, Russia and Jordan agreed to support a “de-escalation zone” in the southwestern Syrian governorates of al-Quneitra, Daraa and part of the governorate of Suwayda (TASS, July 31; Hurriyet, July 22). The de-escalation zone agreement was the product of a separate but related diplomatic process to the ongoing Astana and Geneva negotiations that are seeking to achieve a mechanism for a sustainable ceasefire and political framework to end the Syrian civil war (Hurriyet, August 8; [Daraa], July 18; TASS, July 10).

A key component of the southwestern Syria de-escalation zone agreement, which is being made in consultation with Israel, is an understanding that the armed opposition movement in southern Syria — specifically the Southern Front coalition — will transform from an anti-government force to a local security force for opposition-controlled areas. It is expected that it will conduct counterterrorism operations and provide security for the Israeli and Jordanian borders (Haaretz August 9; al-Watan, July 30). [1]

Border Security Fears

To date, the exact contours of the de-escalation zone agreement in southern Syria remain unclear. However, representatives of the Syrian opposition expect that Russia will be responsible for guaranteeing that forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad adhere to the ceasefire, and that it will prevent Lebanese Hezbollah and foreign Shia militias mobilized by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) from being deployed in the de-escalation zone. Meanwhile, the United States and Jordan, in consultation with Israel, are reportedly responsible for ensuring the compliance of the armed opposition with the ceasefire, and for reorganizing the Southern Front coalition into a force that is less threatening to Bashar al-Assad (The National, July 10; al-Ghad [Amman], July 10). [2]

Disagreements over the future of the armed opposition’s battle against al-Assad, and the desire of the United States, Jordan and Israel to draw down the conflict in southwestern Syria, are major points of contention between the Southern Front and its foreign backers (Enab Baladi, August 8; al-Baladi News [Daraa], July 15; al-Monitor, July 14).

In particular, the Israeli government has voiced strong public skepticism about the de-escalation zone agreement over the question of whether Lebanese Hezbollah and IRGC-mobilized Shia militias would still be able to operate near the Israeli side of the Golan Heights (Haaretz, August 9; Times of Israel, July 16; Haaretz, April 7). Israel provides support for some Southern Front organizations, which are located on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights in al-Quneitra governorate, acting as a de facto border security force against both IRGC-aligned forces and militant Salafist organizations (al-Monitor, July 21; Middle East Review of International Affairs, July 3; Syria Deeply, June 15).

Jordan is similarly concerned with its northern border security, focusing on stability on its border with southwestern Syria and on managing the threat from IRGC-mobilized forces and Islamic State (IS) along a 250 kilometer (km) stretch of its northern border with Syria, in the contested Syrian Desert region (Asharq al-Awsat, February 1; see also Terrorism Monitor, March 18, 2016). [3]

Southern Front-aligned armed opposition groups, which are active combatants against both IS and forces loyal and allied to the al-Assad government, continue to operate with support from Jordan in the Syrian Desert region and are not currently a party to the southwestern de-escalation zone (al-Rai [Amman], August 6; al-Hayat, August 1, al-Jazeera, May 15; see also Terrorism Monitor, March 18, 2016).

The major counter-terrorism threats in southwestern Syria, from the perspective of the Southern Front’s foreign backers, are Lebanese Hezbollah and the IRGC-mobilized militias, as well as the IS-affiliated Salafist militants of Jaysh Khalid ibn al-Walid (JKW, Khalid ibn al-Walid Army),  and potentially al-Qaeda’s Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS, Levant Liberation Organization). [4] JKW, designated as a terrorist organization by the United Nations and the United States, controls a swath of territory in the Yarmouk Valley in the extreme southwestern corner of Daraa, in an area that borders Jordan’s northern Irbid governorate.

A major source of tension between the United States and the southern Syrian armed opposition has been the inability of the Southern Front over the past year and a half to mount an effective campaign to defeat JKW (SMART News Agency [Daraa], July 5; al-Quds al-Arabi, June 9). This ineffectiveness is the result of a variety of factors, particularly tribal, clan and family ties between JKW fighters and Southern Front affiliates, which would require the armed opposition forces to pay diya (blood money) to the families of slain JKW fighters, money that its foreign backers have not provided.

These tribal ties also cross the Jordanian border into Irbid governorate, which has led to Jordanian unwillingness to support an all-out campaign against JKW that could lead to tensions on both sides of the border.

These socio-political factors, combined with the U.S.-led coalition’s focus on IS in eastern Syria, have dampened support for the Southern Front campaign against JKW and allowed the IS affiliate to survive. Syrian opposition officials expect that an early priority of the United States once the de-escalation zone is implemented will be to pressure the Southern Front to mount a large-scale offensive to conquer JKW. [5]

A Trouble Transition

Related to the JKW challenge is the question of whether the foreign backers of the Southern Front can successfully convince the armed opposition to become a counterterrorism force in their home areas.

The foreign backers of the armed opposition in Syria share a common interest to reconstitute the Southern Front from a large umbrella coalition into smaller, more tightly coordinated organizations responsible for specific regions of southwestern Syria (al-Aman [Daraa], August 4; Enab Baladi, July 30; Orient News, July 22). However, this effort is complicated by the U.S. government’s decision to cease a covert program that provided military support and training for vetted armed opposition groups, including in southern Syria, through the Military Operations Center (MOC), said to be in Amman (SMART News Agency [Daraa], July 29).

Syrian opposition officials are also concerned that the process of reorganizing the armed opposition from the Southern Front into an alternate force will be hamstrung by Jordan’s limited ability to pay the salaries of opposition fighters, a move needed to convince armed opposition fighters to transition from an anti-Assad force into the new role of a counter-IS force.

The success of the southwestern Syrian de-escalation zone for the counterterrorism objectives of the foreign backers of the southern Syrian armed opposition will depend on the ability of the Southern Front coalition to become a long-term local security force. However, Southern Front leaders are unwilling to give up the fight against the al-Assad government, the armed opposition’s principle adversary for more than half a decade.

Rebels in southwestern Syria are seeking to reassert their agency, which may lead to further conflicts between the transitioning Southern Front and its primary foreign backers. Such a situation would provide extremist organizations such as IS and HTS the opportunity to benefit from the weakness of the Southern Front, to recruit and turn fighters against a foreign project that would inhibit their ability to protect their families and the areas they had seized from al-Assad.

That scenario would likely lead to the collapse of the de-escalation zone agreement, and a metastasizing militant Salafist threat in southwestern Syria that could prompt further violence among the rebel movement or greater conflict with the al-Assad government.



[1] Interviews with a senior advisor to the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiating Committee and a Syrian political advisor to the Southern Front coalition based in the Middle East. Both interviewees requested anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive topics related to ongoing discussions with foreign partners. Interviews conducted on August 8, 2017. For more information on the Southern Front see: Terrorism Monitor, March 18, 2016; Terrorism Monitor, March 6, 2014.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Interview with Suha Maayeh, a Jordanian journalist based in Amman (August 7, 2017).

[4] Interviews with a senior advisor to the Syrian opposition’s High Negotiating Committee and a Syrian political advisor to the Southern Front coalition based in the Middle East (August 8, 2017). Both interviewees requested anonymity to speak candidly about sensitive topics related to ongoing discussions with foreign partners.

[5] Ibid.