Last week the Syrian regime mobilized its military forces in the southwestern governorate of Der‘a for what appears to be a military operation to impose full security control on the town of Tafas and its surrounding areas. Tafas, along with other localities, was one of the areas covered by a Russian-brokered agreement in 2018. The agreement greatly limited the return of the regime’s military and security forces in exchange for the rebels’ submission. Russia has sought to maintain a status quo in the south to avoid intervention by Israel and Jordan, who fear that the regime’s military and security forces would open the door to the deployment of Iranian and pro-Iranian forces in the border area. To shed light on this, on May 15 Diwan interviewed Armenak Tokmajyan, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center who specializes on borders and conflict in Syria.
Michael Young: What is currently taking place in Der‘a Governorate?
Armenak Tokmajyan: On May 4, the bodies were found of nine dead policemen serving in a town in southwest Der‘a Governorate. The person who killed them, Qasem al-Subaihi, is a former rebel who later joined the regime’s security forces. He was acting in retaliation for the killing of his son and son in law the previous Sunday, for which he accused the regime. However, the policemen were not involved.
After the incident, notables in Der‘a issued a statement condemning the action and disowning Subaihi, which in tribal tradition means the perpetrator does not have the support of his clan. The regime, however, has vowed to bring the loosely-controlled areas of the region under its firm security control. In subsequent days, military reinforcements began arriving, suggesting that the regime wants to use the incident as an excuse to impose a stronger presence there.
MY: Is the military escalation in the Der‘a unprecedented?
AT: The potential scale of the escalation is unprecedented since summer 2018, when the regime retook control of Syria’s southwest, despite the fact that tensions and armed violence have become defining characteristics of the situation in Der‘a after the regime’s return. The most recent example of a military operation by regime forces occurred in March 2020, when they successfully reimposed their authority in parts of Al-Sanamayn city that until then had been out of their control. The current development, however, is unprecedented in several ways.
First, the scale of regime reinforcements is quite significant, an indication that a major military operation could be forthcoming. Second, the town of Tafas has avoided a direct regime presence as a result of a Russian-brokered agreement for the area, to which Moscow has thus far remained committed. Third, former rebels in Tafas and surrounding areas are well armed. If a military confrontation were to take place, there could be high levels of violence.
MY: How might Russia react to this escalation, given that it brokered an agreement for parts of the southwest that effectively sought to coopt former rebel areas and avoid major clashes?
AT: Ever since regime’s return to Der‘a, Russia has been committed to this agreement. There is an ongoing debate over the extent to which this is true. Some opposition actors have criticized Moscow for not being proactive enough against the regime, while others have suggested that Russia has been committed, though in varying degrees depending on the locality. There is some truth to these claims.
However, at the very least, the Russians have stuck to a core rationale for the agreement, namely limiting or preventing a direct regime presence in many areas. That, in turn, could be interpreted as an effort to avoid arousing Israeli and Jordanian anxieties about Iranian and pro-Iranian forces deploying to the southwest region alongside regime forces. Russia’s repeated interventions to mitigate escalations that could lead to the collapse of the agreement has, retrospectively, clearly manifested its commitment.
The fact that there are ongoing negotiations, with Russian participation, could be an indication that Russia is not in favor of a full-scale escalation. It might be doing what it did in the past, namely averting a conflict and seeking to deescalate the situation through symbolic or small concessions to the regime.
Given the unprecedented levels of regime military reinforcements, another scenario could be that Russia indeed seeks to avoid a military confrontation, but this time aims to push the rebels into making more concessions. A further possibility is that Russia could be looking to turn the crisis into an opportunity to recruit former rebels into pro-Russian units of the Syrian army—for instance the Russian-backed Fifth Corps—thereby extending its protection to them.
MY: Does this escalation contain a hidden message to Russia?
AT: Sending the Syrian army and security reinforcements from units that are strongly associated with Iran to a region that has been under Russian protection might conceal a hidden message. Overlapping reports suggest the participation of army units, such as Maher al-Assad’s Fourth Division, that have strong ties to Iran. This is a risky calculation, not just on a regional level but with respect to the order that Russia has established in Der‘a. As I said earlier, this is an order that, among other things, is specifically designed to keep the influence of Iran and pro-Iranian forces at bay in the southwest.
MY: In light of this, how might the situation in Der‘a impact the broader region?
AT: The southwest corner of Syria is no ordinary border region. It is a contentious regional frontier where any major instability or military escalation would have transboundary effects. Therefore, escalation by a pro-Iranian wing within the Syrian regime is very problematic for Israel and Jordan. Both countries, especially Israel, have made it clear that they would not tolerate the presence of Iran or its proxies near the occupied Golan Heights in ways that would endanger its security. Russia, despite the many downsides of the order that it was instrumental in establishing in the southwest, has acted in a way to provide assurances to the neighbors.
That said, even if the Fourth Division reinforces its presence in Tafas and surrounding areas, that would not immediately translate into an Iranian presence endangering the regional order. If we assume that the regime and Iran are behind this ploy, then their aim should be understood more as a tactical step to prove their relevance to the game, rather than an attempt, or rather a very risky gamble, to fracture the cautious balance that exists in a sensitive border area.