Jun 28, 2018

Window narrowing to stave off worst-case scenario in southwest Syria

Smoke rises above the Daraa province countryside after airstrikes by Syrian regime forces on June 27, 2018. Photo: Mohamad Abazeed/AFP/Getty Images

The Assad regime last weekend launched an offensive into southwest Syria aimed at dividing opposition forces in Daraa province and reasserting government control over the region.

Why it matters: The regime campaign, backed by Russian airpower, has already displaced at least 45,000 civilians — many seeking shelter along Jordan's closed border — and that number could soon reach 200,000. The UN has warned that a full-scale offensive could put as many as 750,000 lives at risk and prove as bloody as the sieges of “eastern Aleppo and eastern Ghouta combined" (which included the use of chemical weapons).

The details: Syria’s southwest is a strategically sensitive area that borders Jordan, Lebanon and Israel. The new regime offensive is taking place in a “de-escalation zone” negotiated last year by the U.S., Jordan and Russia — an agreement that decreased violence and lowered tensions between Israel and Iran over the latter’s presence in the area. This could all now change, and an Iranian role in the regime offensive could drag Israel deeper into the fight.

What’s next: There is a small window to prevent a worst-case scenario. The parties to the de-escalation agreement could try to resuscitate it, but no such effort appears underway. Although Moscow has reportedly reached out to Washington to broker a deal under which opposition fighters would turn over positions to regime forces, it is unclear if Washington could compel that outcome even if it wanted to.

If diplomacy cannot slow the fighting, the humanitarian situation will deteriorate. Most assistance to Syrians in the southwest is delivered via UN cross-border relief operations from Jordan. But if violence escalates, those operations could cease. If Jordan continues to keep its doors closed, displaced Syrians will be left to languish in informal settlements along the border or try their luck in areas controlled by the regime.

Hardin Lang is vice president for programs and policy at Refugees International.

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