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Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 December 2018

Syria’s looming Deraa offensive risks raising Iran-Israel tensions

Israeli-supported rebel groups among the targets of an expected government offensive near Deraa

A bulldozer clears debris from the streets in Deraa, Syria July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir
A bulldozer clears debris from the streets in Deraa, Syria July 25, 2017. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir

Nestled in southern Syria near the point where the edge of the Israeli occupied Golan Heights meets Jordan, the rebel-held town of Deraa has long been in the regime's sights. With the recent recapture of Eastern Ghouta and Yarmouk Palestinian camp on the edge of the Syrian capital, regime forces and their allies are looking to push south.

However, the offensive has the potential to be the powder keg that sparks a major regional escalation.

Israel has provided support for rebels and civilians on the border with the Golan Heights since at least 2013, treating them in thier hospitals and providing weapons and other aid. After the United States ended a CIA-run program based in Jordan to support rebels in southern Syria in January, Israeli media reported that the Jewish state had increased aid to seven rebel groups in February.

Past Israeli beneficiaries have included extremist groups, such as Al Qaeda’s former Syrian affiliate.

Now, with the forces of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad beginning to mass in recent days and appearing to be preparing to start their push toward the southern border, concerns are rising that the deployment of Tehran-backed forces could escalate the already tense standoff between Iran and Israel in the area.

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Though Russian president Vladimir Putin recently suggested Iran could withdraw its forces entirely from Syria, the reality is that such a move is unlikely, at least in the short term. Iranian troops and Iranian-supported militia forces already play a key role in the Syrian government’s military capabilities across the country, though there were reports on Tuesday of a possible draw-down of Iranian and Lebanese militia forces in the area as more of the Syrian governments’ forces arrived. The National was unable to confirm the reports.

“Iran has been trying to control areas near the Golan Heights and destabilize the region,” said Iyad Al Rafaee, a doctor in the town of Tal Shahib.

The proximity of Iranian forces to Israel’s border has been a flashpoint for years, escalating earlier this month into the first direct exchange of cross-border fire between Iranian forces and Israeli ones. Israel has conducted dozens of airstrikes in Syria since the civil war began there seven years ago with the stated intention of reducing the capabilities of Iranian forces and Lebanese Hezbollah and preventing Iran from establishing military infrastructure close to the Israeli border.

Yazid Sayegh, senior fellow at Carnegie Middle East Center, told The National that he wasn’t sure if the offensive in the south was about to begin. However, he said Israel and the US knew it would be difficult to dislodge Iranian forces despite their acute and general attempts to impact Tehran’s abilities to operate.

The Iranians, faced with the possibility of escalation with the US, are going to be manoeuvring to try and push back — they are engaging in a sort of test of wills to see where the red lines are in Syria, whether it’s a response to recent Israeli strikes or a reminder that Iran hasn’t been deterred and they have the means to escalate in the south," he said.

“The Israelis probably know they can’t remove Iran from Syria fully — and probably what comes out of it is something halfway, a set of understandings worked out either through trial and error on the ground or with a bit of Russian negotiation,” Mr Sayegh said.

It is unlikely, though, that Iran would seek a wider confrontation with Israel in Syria right now, said Hanin Ghaddar, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Ms Ghaddar pointed out that recent Israeli strikes had hurt Iranian operations inside Syria but hadn’t knocked them out.

Col Fateh Hassoun, a defected Syrian military officer who now negotiates on behalf of the rebel forces at international peace talks, said he believed Iran would continue to move its forces further away from the Israeli border to avoid further losses.

"Israel insists on the absence of Iranian forces close to its borders, and it is supported by Russia and America in that. Any progress of the regime forces in the region means progress for Iran, which will make Iran a target for Israel. It will not put itself in this predicament. Changes on the ground indicate the withdrawal of Iranian forces in the region, and I think there will be more withdrawals soon."

For residents of rebel-controlled Deraa, there is uncertainty about what comes next. Some said they feared being forcibly displaced to other parts of Syria, as has happened to tens of thousands of people in the last two years as the government has steadily recaptured territory from rebels.

Jordan has for years tightly policed its border with Syria, largely preventing refugees from entering after an initial influx of more than half a million refugees. More recently, Jordan has begun deporting hundreds of Syrians back to Syria each month.

Caught between a closed door from neighbouring Jordan and Israel and an impending assault by a brutal regime and its allies, locals have few places to turn.

“We do not trust anyone,” said Imad Badawi, a journalist who lives in Tel Shahib.