The Assad regime moves to bomb opposition-held Daraa province into submission. The US and Israel stand on the sidelines, while Jordan is grappling with the next wave of refugees. A press review on the regional repercussion of the Daraa offensive.
The Syrian government is expanding its control over opposition-held Daraa in Syria’s south. On Sunday, a delegation of opposition forces agreed to hand over eight towns after talks with Russian officers had taken place. Assad’s Syrian Arab Armed Forces are now in control of more than half of Daraa’s territory.
Daraa is one of the last opposition-held provinces in Syria. One year ago, the US, Russia and Jordan brokered a deal for the establishment of a de-escalation zone in southweste Syria. On June 19, Assad-aligned forces and Russia started a joint military operation to recapture the province of Daraa. The operation is said to have killed more than 125 civilians and internally displaced more than 270,000 people. The borders of the neighboring countries Israel and Jordan remain closed to Syrian refugees. The US is not considering a military intervention in Daraa.
Khairallah Khairallah, a columnist for the Dubai-based Saudi news channel Al-Arabiya, analyses the repercussions of the military offensive for US foreign policy. For reasons yet unknown the US cancelled their support for Syrian oppositional forces inside Daraa at the wake of the operation. Khairallah interprets this move as a dissociation from the de-escalation zone agreement which was finalized between Russia, Jordan and the US at the 2017 G20 Summit. Khairallah believes that the US and Israel are ‘gambling’, hoping to contain Iran’s influence in Syria with the help of Russia. Even Moscow understood that the future of Syria can only be written with Teheran’s proxies out of the picture. But without Iran, president Bashar Al-Assad would be relegated to the status of ‘obedient student’ to Vladimir Putin.
It might, however, be possible, that Russia is only trying to appease Washington, sending vague signals of a future cooperation. This had been the case in 2013, when Assad had used chemical weapons against his own citizens, crossing the ‘red line’, formulated by former president Barack Obama. Back then, only Russia’s persuasion had prevented a military intervention. Trump had tried to distance his foreign policy from his predecessor, relying on occasional air strikes of largely symbolic value. How things will unfold in Daraa might reveal if there is a real difference between these two approaches.
Ammar Abdul Ghani, commenting for the state-run daily Al-Watan, denies the existence of ‘red lines’ for US foreign policy in Syria. The reason for Trump to avoid military intervention in southern Syria, Abdul Ghani argues, proves that the US, along with Israel and the Gulf states, are aware that their battle is lost. Abdul Ghani claims that recapturing Daraa would have positive effects for the Syrian economy since the province provides the agricultural backbone for the adjoining areas in Syria and Jordan, including the Damascus metropolitan area.
Social media in Jordan is grappling with the fallout of the next stage of the refugee crisis, with many users calling for action to help Syrian refugees, using the hashtag #opentheborder. Taleb Obeidat, former Minister of Public Works and Housing and Op-Ed writer for the Amman-based online newspaper Ammon, discusses risks and menaces of such a move in his feature ‘Syrian asylum between humanity and security’. He points out two aspects: On the one hand, he advocates for human compassion with Jordan’s neighbors in such dire circumstances. On the other hand, Obeidat argues, Jordan needs to keep the refugees on Syrian territory by supporting camps in Syria run by the international community.
According to Obeidat, this would allow Jordan to fulfill its ‘humanitarian duty’, even if the refugees remain inside Syria. The risk of sleeper cells infiltrating Jordan once the borders open is a price too high to pay, Obeidat argues. He addresses his compatriots, asking them to listen to their ‘minds, not their emotions’ and to take Jordan’s national interest into account, especially with regard to the current economic and security situation.
Amos Harel illustrates the dilemma Israel is facing in his Op-Ed for Israeli liberal daily Haaretz. Providing humanitarian aid for Syrian refugees through the operation ‘Good Neighbour’ collides with Israel’s national security interests. On the one hand, Israel must not risk confrontation with Russia; Moscow has been Israel’s strongest partner in keeping Iran and Shi’ite militias as far away from Israel’s borders as possible. On the other hand, Israel needs to protect its borders without engaging in open conflict with the Syrian government. ‘Beefing up’ Israeli military presence in the Golan Heights, Harel argues, means walking a tightrope and will force Israel to consider every move in the volatile area with caution.
Richard Herzinger, correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, heavily criticizes Russia’s ‘terrorist’ involvement in the Daraa offensive. While Vladimir Putin presents himself as the ‘generous host and patron of international understanding’ at the World Cup, the ‘murderous’ alliance of Russia and its ‘puppet’ Assad bombs another Syrian province into submission.
The fate of Daraa’s civilian population attracts little attention, Hertziger laments, as the West largely ignores the humanitarian consequences, while the EU and the US have handed Russia a ‘carte blanche’. Russia, on the other hand, is trying to persuade the EU to raise funds for the reconstruction of Syria. In exchange, Moscow would wield its influence on Assad to rescind the decree dispossessing Syrians who fail to claim their property within a 30-day period. At the same time, Russia is blocking the extension of the OPCW’s mandate which would result in holding Assad accountable for his use of chemical weapons.
Herzinger expects a deal between Russia and the US in the wake of Donald Trump’s upcoming visit to the Kremlin in mid-July, with major concessions to Putin in sight. This would mark the beginning of a new world order which casts ‘normative and moral rules’ aside.