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What will happen in southern Syria in July 2018? Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi interview

A sign marking a mine field on the Golan (Seth J. Frantzman)

Thousands of Syrian refugees have begun to crowd near Israel’s Golan border in the Syrian town of Rafid near the historic ceasefire line between Syria and Israel. As the Syrian regime keeps up its bombardment of rebels in the south, and as the rebels continually lost ground in late June 2018, there were concerns that the refugees and spillover from the fighting will pressure Israel to intervene or create a larger crises.

Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, an expert who did extensive research on the border area and is familiar with relations between Israel and the Syrian rebels presents several scenarios as the crises unfolds. “I think the Syrian military operation will grow and a deal will be struck and some [rebels] deported to the north and others will stay and some who stay may become enforcers for the Syrian government,” says Al-Tamimi, a Research Fellow at the Middle East Forum. What follows is an interview conducted with him on June 28 by Seth J. Frantzman. It comes as Israel says it has delivered 300 tents and tons of supplies via the Golan and as the Syrian rebels continue to lose ground. US President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet Russian President Vladimir Putin in mid-July and Astana talks will continue at the end of July.

How do you see the current Syrian military operation unfolding?

I think the military operation will grow and a deal will be struck and some deported to north and others will stay and some who stay will become law enforcers for regime; it is still early days and sense that Jordanians pressure rebels into negotiations; but what the deals are is still unknown.

The softest you could have is that you have the rebel factions left to run security in the town and the regime and army doesn’t interfere or you don’t leave them and you have a limited number who regularize status and return of services and Ba’ath party branches; or there could be a way that factions remain but they become affiliates of military intelligence or air force intelligence or theRepublican Guard; and then you have the harsher type of deal where you see deportations and people going north.

There are different groups also?

Some villages have one faction that is dominant and some are a mixture and in terms of the arrangement could vary from place to place. SO if there is a multiplicitiy of factions then there could be problems of law and order and security in aftermath; so in one place in north Dara’a when that happened then there were problems.

One issue is Jaysh Khalid bin Walid, the ISIS affiliate, where you see military confrontation and then obviously none of those guys will agree so they might be deported to the eastern desert.

Similar to Qalamoun when ISIS was bussed to the Euphrates valley in August 2017?

Yes, similar to that.

The rebels claim to want to keep fighting

Yeah, I don’t think the rebels have the capability to hold out for too long, the outcome is predetermined and the rebels and their cause lose one way or another. Everything else is just minutiae and day to day; the outcome is clear, the only thing that would stop it is if the US intervened. You could say there was a missed opportunity and the US could have deployed troops in the south if there was this idea of forcing the de-escalation and stopping Russia from its end goal.

How does the Russian role play out, are they the main drivers of the offensive?

I think the answer is that the government is driving it with the Russians acting as support, as they have previously. Basically the reasoning is the same. The Russians and government consider if they had allowed that area to be maintained indefinitely then it means endorsing a separatist project. One way or another they want to eliminate it. It is either soft reconciliation or a full military campaign. Some in the US thought that Russia was interested in de-escalation for its own sake rather than the actual goal which is bringing back the government to the south; they thought this agreement would hold due to Trump’s relations with Putin, but you see how Russia does these deals is to game the system and advance the interests of their main ally.

The regime and Russians have gone one by one in terms of defeating one Syrian rebel area and then another

Rather than going all at a time, you take it slowly and you are patient.

What about allegations of demographic change, cleansing of Sunnis and this new land law?

I don’t think it is proven, this idea of this grand plan to change demography of southern Syria and to change the country. It’s more about how does the regime deal with communities that have been in rebellion, so can they reconcile and if not what to do with them. So that’s what happens with those who have gone north with those who don’t want to live under the Syrian government. But there are areas that have a sectarian angle, like if you look at Homs city, that was a sectarian Sunni-Alawite dynamic, but I don’t see that in the south. But in the Triangle of Death it does seem Hezbollah turned that into a base for itself as a presence in the southern region; so people were barred in some cases from returning to their homes. It's more limited than this grand plan of demographic change.

What about those rebel areas near the Golan border and Israeli forces?

Some might try to cross illegally, but I don’t see Israel opening the border. I think the regime will be careful there near the border. If they bomb an area and a bomb or missile or mortar shell goes into Israeli territory accidentally then Israel will respond and hold the Syrian government responsible. So they will tread carefully. But as for rebels who worked for Israel, [Bashar al-] Assad has taken on this magnanimous tone as it were, saying ‘well in the end this is an issue of failure of patriotism and you will take responsibility and correct the problems’ as we saw in Beit Jann, there was this ‘Moro’ guy who worked with the Israelis but then he gets a position as a head of local intelligence.

What about the Americans and the issue of Tanf in the south near the Jordanian border?

If you ask me about the broader issues. I don’t buy the idea of the Russians aiming for a kind of frozen conflict, they want to restore the regime to their areas. They don’t seem in a hurry to get the Americans out of Syria, but they play long games. They [the regime] might support these [dissident/pro-regime] groups in SDF areas or Tanf and produce a war wariness and that results in US withdrawing from eastern Syria and one way or another, it could mean the regime attempts to reconquest there could be negotiations with the SDF. So it’s unclear how far the Russians want to go. But everything is geared toward restoring the regime. [Note: In May Assad said he was open to negotiations with the SDF, calling eastern Syria the "only problem" left to deal with]

In the southern Golan and along the border you have some extremist groups, including the ISIS-affiliate, do you think they might attack Israel?

I don’t see that, that would be folly for them.

Isn’t in their interests to keep Israel involved though, for instance by talking about Iranian influence in the offensive?

They do talk a lot about the Iranian militias targeting them and they play that up because whether it is true or not, they want someone to intervene and say this is crossing a red line. There is a limited Shi’ite presence in this campaign which is true, like in Ghouta, there are militias that are linked to the Syrian state, the 4th Division, Republican Guard etc, and a similar thing in Dara’a, but where are the Iranian-linked forces, they are focusing on Albukamal in the Euphrates valley.

And Hezbollah's role in that 'Triangle of Death' area?

It simultaneously allows them to have a presence but not right on the border.

Trump and Putin are meeting in mid-July, do you see that affecting the rebels chances or the regime tempo of the offensive?

I think it’s a sealed fate.

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