Is There a Russian-Israeli Deal for Southern Syria or Not? US Withdrawal in the Cards?

Iran and Hezbollah are not the only foreign players in Southern Syria. There is also the Israeli-occupied Golan and the uninvited US presence in the form of the al-Tanf base on the Syrian side of border with Iraq. If Syria is to keep Hezbollah and Iran from the south it wants the Americans to in turn vacate al-Tanf

Russia and Damascus (and its allies) have agreed on a plan for the Syrian Army to liberate what remained of the south of Syria- Qunietra and Daraa. The deal will be discussed this week between senior members (Vice Ministers) of the Russian, US and Jordanian establishments where Damascus and Tehran are blessing the Russian effort and negotiation skills. The deal is clear: either the US pulls out of Tanf crossing or else there will be no deal and the Syrian Army will ask for the support of its allies to liberate the south. The Russian ball has been kicked onto the US field and it is now up to Washington. It can either decide to go to war alongside Israel against Damascus’s forces in the south, or it can pull out its occupation forces from the Syrian-Iraqi crossing.

The Syrian Army is gathering large forces to liberate the last pocket south of the capital Damascus where ISIS (under the name of Jaish Khaled Bin al-Waleed) and other jihadists and their allies occupy the part of southern of Syria bordering Israel and Jordan. Damascus and Amman are looking forward to seeing the Syrian Army regain the control of the borders and reopen the Naseeb crossing to restore one of the most important sources of income to both countries.

However, Israel is turning to Russia – and not the US –  to ask for a guarantee that Iran and Hezbollah won’t establish bases on the borders and create a situation where the Syrian borders will be used as a platform to attack Israel in the future.

Russia, Syria and Iran have all agreed on the next step to be taken to liberate the south and for all parties involved to be content. The Israeli demands to see only the Syrian army on its borders won’t be met ‘for free’: there is a price to be paid and the price is the al-Tanf crossing currently occupied by the US forces.

The US forces also occupy part of north-east Syria and the main eastern commercial crossing between Iraq and Syria (al-Tanf). Actually, there is no direct benefit to the US to have forces in Syria – except to support Israel – and the control of the crossing serves either to push the thousands of militants trained by the Pentagon to attack Syrian territories (to no strategic avail) or to slow down the Syrian economy. This is why Russia and its allies expect Tel Aviv to put pressure on Washington to pull out its forces from al-Tanf in exchange for Israeli “peace of mind” on the borders.

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However, there are several different scenarios possible here:

  1. Israel accepts and asks the US to free the Syrian-Iraqi crossing. The Syrian Army will take control of the south by attacking the jihadists and their allies
  2. Israel refuses: the Syrian Army will attack the jihadists with its allies. If Israel reacts by bombing the attacking forces, Damascus and its allies have already established a new Rule Of Engagement (ROE) and will retaliate by hitting targets in the occupied Golan Heights and beyond. The risk of a spill-over war between Israel and Hezbollah and Iran is high. Is the Israeli internal front ready for a wider war?
  3. Israel and the US raise their demands and ask for the withdrawal of all Iranian forces from Syria: this is an impossible request to meet for Russia. Iran is based in Syria since the late President Hafez Assad allowed the Iranian revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) to support the Lebanese resistance against the Israeli invasion in 1982. Moreover, Syria asked for the support of Iran and its allies in 2013, more than two years before the Russian intervention. Also, Tehran and Damascus – both members of the trio “Axis of the Resistance” (Syria, Iran, Hezbollah) – agree on all issues related to the war in Syria; how to conduct it and what political outcome should be reached. This harmony is not equal to the one between Moscow and Damascus. Thus, Russia is in no position to ask the Syrian government to impose an Iranian withdrawal from Syria for a price that the Syrian Army can impose with or without Israel’s consensus.

Thus, Israel has limited space to manoeuvre: to go for a battle with unpredictable consequences against the “axis of the Resistance” and push President Bashar al-Assad to become aggressive, willing to hit Israel and turn from defensive to offensive. Otherwise, Israel could accept to minimise its gain by accepting the absence of Iran and its allies away from the borders.

In his last interview, Assad said that his only option was “to improve air defence, this is the only thing we can do, and we are doing it”. To the “Axis of the Resistance” this is a pure defensive attitude that doesn’t necessarily meet the way Israel should be faced. Iran and its allies would like to show Israel a more aggressive attitude by taking the offensive battle much further than Assad currently wishes. Therefore, the option to have only the Syrian Army on the Israeli occupied Golan heights and on the 1974 demarcation line is all to Israel’s advantage.

There are differences in the way Russia is handling the Syrian dossier with its close allies, though not enough to spoil the relationships. Russia would like to move forward with political reconciliation as fast as possible, ask Damascus to re-write the constitution and see the US out of Tanf, so that the occupation forces (US and Turkey) are concentrated only in the north.

Damascus would not ask Iran and its allies – today – to pull out now unless the danger was over. It has the intention of reviewing (not re-write, as Moscow wishes) the constitution and seeking the withdrawal of all foreign occupation forces.

Regardless of whether the Israeli ‘has the guts’ to ask Syria which forces it can keep on its territory and which forces it can’t, what is certain is that both Russia and the “Axis of the Resistance” want the liberation of the south and would go along with asking Iran and Hezbollah to keep away far from the borders. The “Axis” seems very comfortable with the idea of leaving southern Syria, confident that local Syrian forces are today, after more than 7 years of war, very well equipped with warfare experience and strong ideology to tread an identical path with the “axis” in relation to their animosity to Israel.  But now, the head of the US in al-Tanf, on a plate, is the non-negotiable price.