In mid-January, the Syrian governorate of Dar‘a was on the verge of a military escalation that could have destabilized southern Syria. An old dispute in the town of Tafas between members of the Kiwan and Zu‘bi clans flared up again, leaving at least five people dead. Both sides used military-grade weapons in their battles.
The Syrian regime sought to exploit the dispute and push for stronger security control in and around Tafas, in particular by deploying the crack Fourth Armored Division. That is because in 2018, when government forces and Russia recaptured the south from the rebels, Tafas was one of those places where a Russian-brokered agreement had imposed considerable limitations on the presence of Syrian military and security forces. In exchange for this, the rebels had agreed to submit to the government’s return to the south.
At the time Russia favored a negotiated return, mainly to exclude Iranian participation in retaking territory. Its fear was that this would trigger Israeli, Jordanian, and U.S. military responses to prevent the Iranians and their allies from deploying in the border area, which would have undermined Moscow’s and the Syrian regime’s efforts to impose their writ in the area. However, the Syrian government never welcomed the conditions imposed on it by Moscow, and the recent fighting in Tafas was the latest episode that it sought to use as a wedge to pave the way for a more substantial return of its forces.
The regime set an ultimatum for the opposition in Tafas to meet several demands. These included handing over wanted rebels or their exile to opposition-held areas in northern Syria, and the surrender of weapons used during the dispute, among others. Meanwhile, a negotiation track was opened to prevent an escalation. In the first days of the dispute, local notables and members of the Fifth Corps, which is nominally part of the Syrian Army but receives orders and enjoys patronage from Russia, attempted to calm tensions. Later, Russia, representatives of the regime, and opposition figures activated existing channels to resolve the crisis.
The Russians ultimately managed to facilitate an agreement. This reportedly stipulated the expulsion of wanted rebels from Tafas to other areas in Dar‘a, rather than northern Syria, the handover of weapons, the reopening of the police station and three other civilian institutions in Tafas, and permission for units of the Fourth Armored Division to conduct searches in specific localities. The agreement also sought to prevent steps that might lead to a military escalation. While pro-regime media presented the deal as the Syrian military’s return to Tafas to “enforce security and stability,” anti-regime platforms wrote that the government’s claims of controlling the town were “illusory.”
For locals and observers alike, what took place in Tafas was not surprising. It had to be understood as part of a game the main players on the ground in the south—Russia, the Assad regime, Iran, and remnants of former armed rebel groups—have been playing since 2018. They have sought to encroach on the spheres of influence of other players to enhance their own authority. And they have done so, at least for now, while trying not to endanger the fragile equilibrium that emerged after the military campaign in 2018.
In this deadly game, the regime remains the key player. Although it is weak, decentralized, and its security and military apparatus are under considerable foreign influence, it seems to have a clear strategy when it comes to local matters in Dar‘a. Its objective is to incorporate or eliminate opposition networks that emerged during the conflict, which could become a threat to the regime.
Since 2018, the regime has assassinated or detained perceived opponents, or conducted limited military operations against them. During this period the regime has also successfully incorporated former rebels into its military-security apparatus. ‘Imad Abu Zureiq in Nassib and Mustafa al-Masalmeh in Dar‘a al-Balad are the most noteworthy examples, albeit not the only ones.
Iran is playing a similar game, but with different pawns. Tehran’s presence in the region is limited mostly to allies. The most important one is Hezbollah, which already had a presence in Quneitra before the 2018 campaign, and has reportedly expanded it ever since. The Fourth Armored Division of the Syrian Army, which is led by President Bashar al-Assad’s brother Maher, is also an important Iranian ally in the south. In the past year, units of the division have tried to expand their presence in western Rural Dar‘a Governorate, as in May 2020 when there was a similar crisis to the one in January.
Iran has been wary of the fact that Russia is the guardian of the status quo, while Israel keeps a watchful eye on the south and can act when it wants. It did so, for example, back in January 2015 when it killed six Hezbollah members in Quneitra, including Jihad Mughniyeh, the son of the senior Hezbollah official Imad Mughniyeh. The Israelis have also conducted dozens of airstrikes against Iranian allies in southern Syria, with no reaction from Russian air defenses.
Though Russia has different calculations that Iran, having been responsible for the order that prevails in large parts of the south, it too has its pawns. During the negotiations in 2018, it coopted one of the most prominent rebel leaders in the region, Ahmad al-‘Audeh, as its main local collaborator. ‘Audeh, who was quicker than other rebel leaders to come to terms with Russia, became the head of the Fifth Corps in Dar‘a. Moreover, from time to time there have been reports that Russia is trying to reinforce the Fifth Corps with additional fighters, presumably to boost its local presence given the limited number of Russian personnel on the ground.
The game played by the major players in Dar‘a will most likely continue for some time. That means the continuation of instability in the governorate, as well as assassinations, insecurity, detentions, and localized military escalations. All the small moves in which the big players have been engaged since 2018 are little by little redrawing the complex map of power in Syria’s volatile south.