The Russian Reconciliation Center in Hmeimem initiated efforts aiming to mainstream the reconciliation system in the villages and towns in the south in February 2018. The Center’s efforts came following the the reconciliation model being adopted by cities and towns in the vicinity of Damascus, northern Homs and other areas.
On February 22, a meeting was held in Daraa attended by the head of the Russian Reconciliation Center of the southern region, the Russian Admiral Collette Vadim, the Syrian Regime Reconciliation Committee member Awad al-Swaidan, and several representatives from the villages and towns of Dael, Ibta, al-Hirak, Nahteh, eastern and western al-Miliha, Tafas and Daraa al-Balad.
The regime press office quoted the Russian Admiral stressing, “the need to work for a peaceful resolution of the conflict in the south and serious efforts to convince the armed terrorist groups to hand over their weapons and return to the homeland.” Admiral Vadim stressed that the regime's orientation after completing its military operations in Idlib and the Eastern Ghouta is the southern region, and that there is not much time left. The Admiral emphasized that efforts must be made to restore peace to the region to get rid of the scourge of war and preserve lives and infrastructure. During the meeting, a document including the agreement text was distributed to the attendees outlining that all parties must adhere to the ceasefire regime and the document was a sample of that to be signed by all parties. (1)
Based on the meeting, the most prominent local and military city councils in western Daraa countryside issued a statement at the end of March threatening the godfathers of the reconciliations living in the liberated areas. The statement spoke of taking all the deterrent executive steps against them without any consideration.(2)
Despite these threats, Russia sought to open channels of communication with the civilian forces via the reconciliation godfathers in the cities and towns of Daraa. Russia sent invitations to sit down and negotiate with the civilian forces. Consequently, a delegation of civil actors responded to these invitations in April 2018 and a meeting was held including Russian Reconciliation Center officials, regime representatives and the civil actors who responded in Suayda Province. However, the civil opposition delegation left the meeting without reaching an agreement due to the manner of speech pursued by the Russian officer. The Russian officer’s speech was characterized by threats of the south living the al-Gouta scenario and demands that the reconciliation process begin immediately before the beginning of the military option. In addition, the Russian side demanded that the armed factions in al-Hara city hand over their weapons, dissidents and those who are evading mandatory military service return to the fold, or an armed party, affiliated to the National Defense, whose leaders are from the city, is established in the city on the basis it will receive financial and military support from the regime.(3)
In a similar move, on May 16, 2018, Russia asked the Mahja Local Council, north of the city of Daraa, to form a military delegation to negotiate with it regarding the fate of the town which is besieged by the regime. On May 14, the same request was sent to the Najij Local Council, but the town quickly rejected the invitation. (4) On 25 May, Russia sent a new letter threatening the people and factions of the town of Abtaa and the city of Da'al in Daraa. The letter demanded that they hand over their areas and comply with the Russian terms, but the letter was categorically rejected by the factions and civil actors.(5) In early June, Sheikh Fadi al-Asami, a member of the Revolutionary Command Council in Daraa and one of the dignitaries of the province, denied that the leaders of the Houran Reform Commission and the Revolutionary Command Council agreed to meet with the Russian side.(6)
On 20 May 2018, helicopters dropped leaflets on the eastern countryside of Daraa, demanding civilians to enter into reconciliation agreements. The regime intensified the distribution of these leaflets, but soon a widescale assassinations of prominent members of the reconciliation committees(7) began though no side so far has announced its responsibility for these operations. However, it is most likely that the opposition factions are behind these operations since they warned those they refer to as the godfathers of the reconciliations a few months. The factions also launched an arrest campaign against a number of prominent leaders on charges of communicating with the Russian side. The arrests included leaders of the Ansar al-Islam Front, the commander of the Fajr al-Tawhid Brigade and the general coordinator of the Syrian National Liberation Front Baraa al-Qbuaani known as Abu Mohammed al-Akhtabout. Al-Obuaani was released but is still under investigation. The Saif al-Sham Brigades dismissed Asim Subaihi their commander in Daraa Province and referred him for investigation on similar charges.
On 22 June 2018, the Russian Ministry of Defence announced that the towns of Dama, al-Shiah and part of the village of Jadal had moved into the control of the regime after the Omari Brigades leader joining the reconciliation regime following negotiations between his faction and representatives of the Russian Reconciliation Center and the Syrian regime. However, the opposition factions’ Central Operations Room in Daraa immediately denied that the Syrian regime forces had made any advances and the allegations made by the Russian Ministry of Defence regarding the handing over of villages in al-Lujat area in eastern Daraa countryside. The Central Operations Room indicated that Omari Brigades leader Wajdi Abu Thalith had been dismissed from the faction a month before the announced after his treason was proven.
In conjunction with the start of the battle of the south, it is clear that the Russian forces are trying to resolve the Daraa eastern countryside dossier through the reconciliation regime more than rely on field achievements. Through this policy, the Russian forces were able to control many villages, the first was Ibtaa village which Syrian forces entered it without fighting on June 29. It was followed by Da'al in the western countryside, and a number of villages in the eastern countryside: al-Swra, Alma, Deir Sult, western Maliha, eastern Maliha, Zohm, Karak, western Gharia, eastern Gharia, Kaheel, al-Musafira, al-Hirak, Jabib, al-Sahwa and al-Mataiye on 30 June. The Central Operations Room then managed to launch an offensive in which they regained control of some of these villages; namely Kaheel, Jabib, al-Sahwa, and al-Mataiye.
On July 1, Russian forces managed to include the village of Busra al-Sham in the reconciliation regime after it conducted a side agreement with Shabab al-Sunneh forces. The agreement is not approved by the negotiating committee designated by the civil and armed opposition forces in southern Syria.
It appears that the reconciliations regime adopted by the Russians to gain control on the ground is mainly based on persuading and enlisting military and civilian forces that have had prior communication with the Russian forces. The Russian depend on making these actors more promises including promises of gains within the Syrian regime institutions. Russia is focused on the restructuring the opposition factions affiliated with the reconciliation regime within the Fifth Corps -Storming. This tactic is somewhat similar to the policy pursued by Russia in Chechnya.
Third: The Importance of the Battle for the Actors
The southern battle is considered very important for local and international actors including the regime, the opposition, Russia, Iran, the United States, Israel and Jordan. In this section, we present a review of the importance of the battle for these various actors and the effect the battle has on their interests in the south.
The Regime and its International Allies
The success of the battle means the complete expansion of the regime’s control to include all of the south and to limit the opposition’s control to the northern region.
Succeeding in the battle will enable the regime to control the Nasib border crossing, secure the Damascus-Aleppo international road and control the al-Hjaz Railway which will enable the regime to open the international road with Jordan in a matter of time. The change will give the regime an important economic opportunity since international land transportation was restricted to the Lebanese borders during the past 7 years.
It is especially important for Russia to have full control of the south because it means that one of the two dossiers (the south and Idlib) suspending a political solution will be resolved. Russia then will be able to move more flexibly in proposing its political options.
According to the Russian vision, the course of the political solution includes ending the armed conflict, cleaning out the small territories controlled by the opposition factions and maintaining a cohesive state. This vision includes the symbolism of restoring state institutions throughout the Syrian territory and applying the political solution through the constitution.
Russia has increasingly demonstrated its determination to use all kinds of political and military pressure to impose this vision and rejected all partial compromises that could disrupt or put obstacles in this course.
Regarding Iran and despite the fact that all the current field developments exclude it from direct presence in the south, but the regime controlling the south is in Iran’s interest. First, Iran has significant control within the Syrian regime and it can return to the south or any other regime-controlled area later following the end of the political pressure. Iran plays cards with great patience, it can bend in storms and would not stop at stumbling blocks or obstacles.
2. Southern Rebel Factions
The armed factions in Daraa and Quneitra represent the last presence of the opposition in southern Syria after the opposition factions left Damascus countryside last April. The battle is very important for the presence of opposition as a whole and for its military and political positioning. Losing the south will restrict the opposition to the northern region and result in the Syrian regime and allies preparing for a possible battle to control Idlib after reclaiming the south.
With regard to the southern factions, the battle is an existential one as losing the battle means losing everything. As such the options available options to these factions are limited especially as their international protection, which provided them with an immunity over the past few years that was unmatched in other opposition-controlled areas, was lifted.
3. The United States of America
The de-escalation agreement in the south is considered the result of the efforts of the Presidents of the United States and Russia. Trump and Putin’s efforts culminated in the announcement of the establishment of a de-escalation zone in southern Syria on November 11, 2017. None of the parties published the content of the agreement, but it was supposed to secure freezing fighting between the southern factions on the one hand and the regime and its international supporters on the other.
It can be said that for the United States, the importance of the southern battle is based on protecting the security of Jordan and Israel respectively, and keeping Iran and its militias out of this region.
Washington threatened to respond to any violations in Daraa prior to the start of military confrontations in Daraa Province. In a statement published on June 15, 2018, the US Secretary of State said in a statement that she will take the necessary measures to respond to regime violations in the de-escalation zone in the southwest of Syria. She added that since Russia is a member in the Security Council, it has more responsibility to use its military and diplomatic influence with the regime to stop the attacks and force the regime to not launch any other military campaigns (8).
But with the launch of the military operation in the south, the Central Operations Room confirmed that the US had sent a short letter to the factions’ leaders on June 24, 2018. The letter states that the US understands the difficult circumstances they are facing, it advised Russia and the Syrian regime to not initiate any military action that violates the de-escalation zone in southwestern Syria, any decision made by the factions’ leaders to confront the escalation has to comply with the factions’ and their local community interest and should not be made on the assumption or expectation of an American military intervention.
While Washington did not issue a statement on the content of the letter, on June 22, the US representative to the Security Council called on the Syrian regime to stop the bombing, violations the escalation of violence and respect the de-escalation agreement. The USA representative also demanded that Russia stop the military operation or it will bear the consequences of violating the agreement.
Russia and the regime's control of Daraa does not constitute a strategic loss to the US as long as there are guarantees for the Israeli and Jordanian sides, especially guarantees that the Iranian-backed militias are not given access to the borders of the two countries. It is believed that Russia has already provided this guarantee to Jordan and Tel Aviv.
The Syrian south has become a strategic depth for Jordan since the opposition has controlled vast areas in the south in 2012. Jordan’ interest in the Syrian crisis was limited to this geographical region. Jordan, through its privileged relations with Washington, Moscow and Tel Aviv, managed to keep the south out of the Russian targeted operations while keeping the southern factions isolated in their political and military understandings from the rest of the opposition factions.
Ayman al-Safadai, the Jordanian Minister of foreign Affairs, called for maintaining the de-escalation agreement before the outbreak of the battle of the south. On June 17, he said that Jordan is committed to the agreement and will continue to work with the US and Russia to keep the agreement as a step towards a comprehensive cessation of hostilities in the south and a comprehensive political solution for the crisis. He added that Jordan has exceeded its capacity to absorb refugees (9).
The interests of Jordan in the south of Syria include preserving this region as a region free from Iranian presence and not receiving more refugees. Jordan closed its borders to refugees after the battle began, and in the Jordanian Prime Minister issued a statement that Jordan does not want to receive any new refugees.
On the other hand, Jordan suffers from economic and security challenges. It has a direct interest in the opening of Nasib border crossing and the Damascus-Amman international road and achieving greater stability in the south as part of paving the way for wider stability in Syria within the scope of the political solution in Geneva. In principle, Jordan does not oppose Russia’s objectives in the battle of the south including regime control of Nasib crossing, securing the international road and the Hija Railway because this would revive Jordan’s economic situation.
Although Jordan does not oppose the regime’s return to the south, it is still trying to secure a less painful exit for its allies in southern Syria. Jordan aims to keep its relations with the tribes in the region to prevent a humanitarian crisis at its northern borders. The tribes in Dara are important as they are socially connected to the tribes in Jordan. It must be noted that semi-organized public donation campaigns were launched in Jordan’s northern cities to help refugees. The move helps maintain tribal relations and secures delivering aid to displaced Syrians inside Syria at a low political cost.
Israel perceives the Syrian south from the lens of protecting its national security from the Iranian influence. Israel may be inclined towards the option of keeping a power balance between the regime and the opposition rather than the regime forces’ complete control of the region. The regime forces’ complete control would be tolerated as long as there is an agreement among Russia, the US, Jordan and the United Nations that includes the south and ensures non-temporary monitoring mechanisms. Israel also approaches the Syrian south from the perspective of maintaining the Disengagement Agreement established in 1974 with Syria.
These Israeli considerations were referred to in part by Israeli media reports after a preliminary agreement was reached following talks between the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin by telephone, and the Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his Russian counterpart Sergey Shoygu. The reports indicate Israel’s support for the regime forces controlling three strategic points in the south; Tal al-Hara, Busr al-Harir and Nasib border crossing.
However, the US withdrawing its influence from the south after its failure to agree with Russia on reconsidering the de-escalation deal there, apparently resulted in Russian-Israeli communication. Russia may have offered Tel Aviv guarantees to preserve its strategic interests in that area especially when it comes to ensuring the area is free of Iranian presence.
Practically, Israel does not object to the regime presence at its borders especially as the regime has been there for decades and proven its effectiveness in protecting the borders and preventing any violation of the ceasefire. However, Israel fears the modified version of the regime where al-Assad does not possess actual power over the decision-making process, so Tel Aviv requires Russian guarantees.
Fourth: The Expected Course of the Battle
There seems to be no option on the horizon except for complete Russia control of the south with only minor detail options remaining or the material and human cost of this control. These options are tied to the form and type of responses that the southern factions will indicate.
The option of full Russian control is enhanced by the absence of American desire to reach a new agreement regarding the south in exchange for concessions for Moscow outside Syria. The absence of the American side allowed Moscow to reach bilateral understandings with Amman and Tel Aviv in response to the concerns of both countries about the Iranian presence. These understandings also secure their borders on the ground in the medium term.
Gaining complete control over the south will most likely happen over a series of stages starting with the eastern zone and then moving to the north of the western zone. Taking control of the Jaish Khaled-controlled areas will mark the end of the battle. It may take months if Russia wants to limit civilian losses and if an actual resistance is mounted by the factions. The battle may take weeks if Russia choses to use excessive violence in a similar scenario to Douma or if the factions stop resisting.
After gaining full control of the south, Russia will deploy its forces and police in all areas with a focus on the border areas with Jordan and the Golan.
In this scenario, Russia will not accept any type of negotiations with the factions unless it is to discuss the unconditional handing over weapons and subjection to Russian authority.
It is believed that opposition factions in the south will only be able to resist for several weeks in the best circumstances especially if the attacking forces are able to isolate the eastern and western zones and if there no logistical or humanitarian support for the factions and civilians from across the borders.
3- “Daraa factions declare Tal al-Hara a military zone”, Enab Baladi, 01/06/2018,
4- “Mahja rejects negotiations with Russia”, Gerun Network, 16/05/2018,
5-Russia demands FSA hand over in Ibtaa, Dael and Daraa al-Balad, Smart, 25/05/2018,
6- Daraa: Hmeimem rushes reconciliations following failure of negotiations with the Americans, al-Modon, 13/06, 2018,
7-“Assassinations’ list in Daraa, killing of 6 members of reconciliations committee during June,” Enab Baladi, 14/6/2018,
8-“America Threatens: It will Respond to Regime Violations in Daraa,” Enab Baladi, 15/06/2018
9- “Al-Safadi Confirms the Importance of Preserving the De-Escalation Agreement in South Syria,” Jordan al-Ghad, 17/06/2018