Assad's huge victory and what it means for Israel
Analysis: The fall of Daraa marks the beginning of the end of the civil war, but it is not over yet. There are both positive and negative consequences for Israel and the Russians are receptive to Israel’s concerns, despite some disagreements on the withdrawal of Iranian entrenchment. Israel must begin preparing for the day after the war.
There are only two provinces left in Syria under rebel control—the Idlib province in the north, which is holding strong mostly thanks to the Turkish forces nearby that support it, and the area east of the Euphrates River that the Syrian Kurds control with heavy American assistance.
The Daraa province lasted a long time thanks to the supply and reinforcements it received from Arab nations—among them Saudi Arabia and the Gulf nations—through Jordan. Jordan also allowed the Americans and the British to support the Syrian rebels with advisors and aid from its territory. Now, all of that is over.
The Syrian army, which was advancing on two axes, took over the border crossing with Jordan, closing the door on a land aid route important to the rebels in the south and southwest of Syria. The rebels in Quneitra have now been cut off from their main supply artery from Jordan, and the Syrian Golan Heights are almost certainly going to fall like a ripe fruit into the hands of the Assad regime.
Israel will continue providing humanitarian aid as long as it can to rebels and refugees in the Golan border area, but nothing more. The closing of the supply chain and Jordanian reinforcements essentially doomed the rebels in the Syrian Golan, and they too will soon have to sign a surrender mediated by the Russians.
Minor Hezbollah presence
From Israel's point of view, the new situation created in southern Syria holds several consequences, not all of them necessarily negative.
One of them is the fact that only small forces of Hezbollah and Shi'ite Iraqi militias sent by Iran took part in the conquering of Daraa and the villages surrounding it. The militia and Hezbollah fighters who did take part in the campaign were dressed in Syrian army uniforms, but did not operate as part of the army's divisions, rather as small cells and teams sent into action when the need arose for certain expertise.
Their small numbers show the Russians were attentive to Israel's demands and warnings, and demanded the Iranians to have minimal involvement in the proper fighting. And the same applies to Hezbollah's presence in the fighting areas.
In returning for Assad and the Iranians obliging this demand, the Russians likely committed to fill the gap left by the pro-Iranian militias on the ground with aerial bombardments. The strikes were what eventually led the rebels in Daraa to surrender to the demands of the Russians—who also mediated a cease-fire and forced the rebels to turn in their heavy weapons.
Another point worth mentioning is that the Daraa area was the center of operations in south Syria of organizations affiliated with Al-Qaeda. First they were called Jabhat al-Nusra, and now they're called Jabhat Fateh al-Sham. The conquering of Daraa eliminates the base of operations for organizations affiliated with global jihad, which almost took over the Quneitra border crossing in Israel. Jabhat Fateh al-Sham may still have presence in the Syrian Golan, but it is now isolated and likely facing surrender.
There is also a pocket of ISIS in the southern Golan Heights, at the Israel-Jordan-Syria border area, but it too is now isolated and cut off from reinforcements, and so its fall is only a matter of time.
All of this is good news from an Israeli point of view. The IDF may have been able to deter the global jihad groups that entrenched in southern Syria and the Syrian Golan, but they still posed a threat, which is now diminishing.
Concern that spillover might lead to escalation
The bad news for Israel concern two aspects. The first is the possibility the Syrian army will take advantage of the fact that UN peacekeeping forces have withdrawn from several positions in the demilitarized zone on the Syrian side of the Golan border, violating the 1974 Disengagement Agreement, which prevents the presence of the Syrian army and heavy weaponry on the border.
There's concern Assad would try to pull a fast one and try to enter an area he wasn't allowed to be in before with heavy weaponry and tanks. If the Syrian regime does this under the auspices of the Russians, a new situation would be created in which the IDF would find itself in direct conflict with Syrian forces stationed only one kilometer, or less, away from Israeli communities.
In such a situation, Israel would have to keep large forces in the Golan Heights on a permanent basis to prevent the possible infiltration of an Iranian or Hezbollah terror force into Israel under the auspices of the Syrian army forces.
Another negative aspect is the possibility that when Assad sends his forces to fight in the Golan Heights, the fighting will "spill over" into Israeli territory. The IDF, in accordance with its policy, will respond with force for every shell bombardment and any infiltration of aircraft—if there are any—into our territory, and such situations have the potential to escalate.
Serious friction can always get out of control and escalate into a conflict, a military campaign or a serious war. Israel has no interest in that. At the same time, Israel also has a clear interest in the Syrian army not approaching the border, with or without a spillover.
Then there is also the humanitarian aspect. Israel has an interest in continuing the positive humanitarian connection with the residents of the villages and towns in the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.
Israel has no desire to become involved in the fighting but the IDF and the State of Israel does have a clear interest in influencing the residents' consciousness in order that they cease to see Israel as a hostile element. This may have military, intelligence and perhaps in the distant future, diplomatic implications.
The Russian interest
The picture would not be complete without pointing out that Russia currently has an important interest in winning over Israel’s goodwill so that the IDF does not impede it or resist the renewed control of the Syrian regime’s army over the Syrian side of the Golan Heights. The Russians want to reach a long-term agreement that will bring about an end of the war in Syria, they want to renew Assad’s control over his country and to that end they need Israel not to intervene.
Therefore, Putin was quick to invite Netanyahu to watch with him the semi-final of the World Cup as a gesture of honor and prestige to soften the expected Israeli resistance to the Syrian army’s control of the areas near the border with Israel. Putin also seems to be accepting Israel’s demand that the Iranians cease to entrench their army in Syria. But unlike Israel, which is demanding an immediate withdrawal of Iran and its proxies, Putin wants it to take place gradually.
In the meantime, there is no agreement on the issue, but the Russians believe that they will come to an understanding with Israel. They know very well that Israel would be willing to offer a lot more than the Americans and the Kurds, who occupy a quarter of the territory of Syria to the east of the Euphrates with the Turks who hold a huge chunk of Syrian territory, in order to prevent the creation of the state of Kurdistan in Syria and in order to prevent the total collapse of the Sunni rebels in the Idlib province.
The picture is a complicated one and the war in Syria has still not yet been decided, but the fall of Daraa was the beginning of the end and Israel must prepare for the day after.