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Moscow, Damascus shadowbox in Syria’s grey zones

  • August 01, 2020

Southern Syria, the cradle of the country’s revolution, now serves as a compelling example of what can happen to a former rebel territory with lingering anti-Assad sentiments that was returned to the regime’s control. More pertinently, it is also an indicator of Moscow’s desire to find a stable compromise with regional and sub-regional players. In 2018 Russia, the United States, Israel and Jordan reached a deal on reconciliation between Damascus and territories in southwestern Syria. Moscow’s aim at the time was to create a so-called “Sunni buffer” on the border with Israel in an attempt to minimize the presence of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), as well as other local and foreign militias loyal to Tehran who had threatened Israel with opening a new Syrian front to bolster the so-called “axis of resistance.”

Consequently, Russia emerged as a de facto security guarantor for ex-rebels in the southwest in exchange for their role in fighting the Islamic State. Already by April 2019, former rebels from the Syrian Free Army’s Southern Front made up more than three-quarters of all the fighters in the Eight Brigade of the Fifth Volunteer Corps active in Daraa province. The brigade had for a number of years been managed directly by a Russian general and there were Russian officers at different levels of command. Those efforts bore fruit in the end, as local forces succeeded in suppressing the IS insurgence and turned hundreds of fighters over to Assad’s security services.   

Having said that, however, the Eight Brigade and locals in Daraa province have also encountered some obstacles along the way. First of all, they have been facing stiff competition for the allegiance of former rebels, most notably from Maher Assad, the president’s brother and a commander of the Syrian Army’s Fourth Division. Assad maintains tight links with Iran, while the Fourth Division comprises many pro-Iran units, including the foreign ones. The division also serves as a cover for the activities of Hezbollah and the IRGC. The Eighth Brigade launched several attacks on the Fourth Division’s checkpoints in retaliation for the regime’s repression. Russian military police in the area reportedly sided with the ex-rebels.  

Secondly, southern Syria suffered a drop in living standards following the dissolution of local councils (civilian authorities in rebel-held areas assisting the population with everyday matters), as well as the shutting down of nongovernmental and civil society organizations. Thirdly, the terms of the reconciliation agreement between the regime and ex-rebels are not always observed. Damascus has been accused of repression, conducting criminal investigations into former opposition members over dubious charges and arbitrary detentions.

All this presents Moscow with a conundrum. If Russia is prepared to stand by the Eighth Brigade or other units under the Fifth Corps umbrella, it needs to coordinate its actions with Damascus. The Syrian regime is wary of Moscow’s support to ex-rebels and sees it as an abetment to autonomy in the south and a threat to its smuggling networks. In June, the secretary of the Syrian People’s Council, Syria’s parliament, Khaled al-Abboud, called on Russia to give up its protectorate over the armed groups that are part of the local reconciliation deal concerning Daraa and to walk back the agreement entirely.

Going forward, it is not unfathomable that Moscow will use the factor of Syria’s “grey zones” — where the government’s control is not absolute — to boost the legitimacy of the Assad regime. A degree of protest vote in the upcoming 2021 election might create an appearance of liberalization within the country in the eyes of foreign journalists. This “liberalization” can then be presented as means to appeal to potential investors in the region.

If Russia is trying to create a renewed Syrian Armed Forces on its own terms, this ambition requires investing substantial resources on a countrywide scale, given countervailing efforts on behalf of Iran to strengthen the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard. Any halfhearted measures would therefore risk exacerbating tensions with Damascus and lead to new skirmishes and hostilities, causing even more human suffering.

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