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Can Russia maintain status quo in Syria's Daraa despite Assad, Iran?

The Russian-brokered cease-fire agreement is evidence of Moscow's complex positioning in southwest Syria.
A picture shows a Russian flag on a Russian military vehicle in the Syrian district of Daraa al-Balad in Syria's southern province of Daraa, on Sept. 1, 2021.

On the evening of Tuesday, Aug. 31, a cease-fire agreement was reached between the so-called "reconciled rebels" in the rebel-held city of Daraa al-Balad and the government of President Bashar al-Assad. The agreement provides for government forces to lift the monthslong siege on the city, which in recent days has been attacked and shelled by Assad's forces in an attempt to take control of it.

The terms of the agreement allow the Russian military police and a security committee linked to the Syrian regime to travel to the area to consolidate the cease-fire.

At the same time, the new demands of the Assad regime, put forward on Friday, Sept. 3, which may have been put forward under pressure from Iran, may again aggravate the situation.

Representatives of the regime demanded the complete surrender of weapons, the establishment of security checkpoints in residential areas and a mass search of houses. The opposition has rejected these conditions and insists on the evacuation of the settlement to Turkey or Jordan.

Nevertheless, it can be assumed that Russia will continue its efforts to preserve the status quo, since for Moscow this is also largely a matter of prestige.

Following a military operation in the country’s southwest against local opposition groups in the summer of 2018, Russia agreed to grant these rebels, mainly from the Southern Front, a special status. Agreements that the armed opposition units could remain and would not be completely disarmed were reached — even before the start of the 2018 offensive — during consultations with the participation of Russian, American, Jordanian and Israeli diplomats in Amman. The presence of opposition forces in this region, albeit in a reduced format, created a kind of buffer zone along the border with Israel and Jordan. The decisive word in the management of this region began to belong not to Damascus or its Iranian allies, but to Russia, which did not allow the deployment of Iranian proxy forces along the borders with Israel.

Russia was able to implement this decision and defend it before Damascus, despite serious opposition from the Assad regime. Subsequently, the Syrian authorities have repeatedly tried to regain control of these areas in order to then transfer them to pro-Iranian formations, but each time this was prevented by Russia. Therefore, over the past three years the position of these rebel-held enclaves has practically remained unchanged.

According to the latest agreement, not only the Syrian flag but also the Russian flag was raised over the city. Also in Daraa al-Balad, while regime security offices reopened and other government agencies will resume, Russian police will also be present and monitor their activities.

In addition, the forces of the 8th brigade of the 5th assault corps, formed by Russia from among the reconciled rebels, entered this enclave along with the Russian military. This is of particular importance, since this brigade, which has the unofficial name Liwa Usud al-Harb, is only formally linked to the Syrian armed forces. Representatives of the Damascus government have called it a "bandit formation" and expressed dissatisfaction with the fact that Russia was creating such units from Syrian opposition fighters. The brigade repeatedly came into conflict with government forces, preventing them from entering the areas of its control and not allowing repression and cleansing there. Also, fighters of the 8th brigade participated in attacks in May of this year on the offices of the security services, where they freed detainees.

At the same time, although Moscow managed to impose its own agenda in the end, the current agreements with Damascus were not easy to come by.

On the one hand, Assad put pressure on the Russian command about the need to continue military operations in Idlib. However, for the Russian military the beginning of new military campaigns — whether in the Syrian northwest or northeast — is extremely risky due to the threat of a direct military clash with Turkey or the United States, whose armed forces are present in these regions.

Then Damascus tried to transfer operations to the south of Syria in order to demonstrate that it does not intend to interrupt the "liberation of Syria to the last inch" campaign that was proclaimed by Assad. But here, too, the Syrian regime could not find Russian support. The Russian military did not help government forces to launch an offensive against Daraa al-Balad. On the contrary, each time Moscow tried to force the parties to sit down at the negotiating table.

At the same time, Assad also had personal motives to retake control of these enclaves in the south of the country since their residents refused to participate in his re-election in May 2021 or to open polling stations. This, of course, greatly complicated Moscow’s argument in support of preserving the special status for these areas.

Yet while settlements controlled by the 8th brigade (where elections were also not held) were under the direct protection of Russia, for others whose status was not fully settled — including Daraa al-Balad — Russian security guarantees in full were not distributed. These other areas were targeted for attacks by Bashar's brother and the commander of the 4th division of the Syrian army, Maher al-Assad, in June of this year.

Moscow's intransigence to Damascus was also affected by the need for the Kremlin to demonstrate its ability to be faithful to its obligations to other countries in the region — namely Jordan and Israel. Therefore, for Russia it was also a matter of prestige.

In this context, an important role was played by the visit of Jordanian King Abdullah II to Moscow on Aug. 23 and his meeting with President Vladimir Putin, where one of the main topics of discussion was the situation in Daraa al-Balad. Some sources claim that following the summit talks, Russia and Jordan agreed on the need to resolve the conflict between the southerners and government forces trying to pacify them, primarily by resolving the humanitarian crisis. According to this information, Amman is ready to provide appropriate economic assistance to the areas that formally returned to the control of Damascus in 2018 but actually retained their autonomy.

Moreover, Moscow would not want to risk its relations with Israel. Russia faces uncertainty about how to build interaction with the new Israeli government. In the event that the regions of southern Syria are transferred under the full control of Assad, pro-Iranian formations will immediately appear, which in fact are the real force behind the operation in Daraa. This will lead to a new aggravation in the region and attacks by the IDF on the positions of pro-Iranian forces near their borders. Russia, of course, would not like to open a new page in relations with Israel on this note.

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