Reading between the lines: Ceasefire in southwest Syria, Israel, US and Russia

By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

As the sun was setting over southern Syria on Friday, the Associated Press reported that its sources say a ceasefire in southwest Syria is in the making. In contrast to the earlier ceasefire Syria announced this week on July 3rd, this one would be announced by the US and Russia. “The deal marks a new level of involvement for the U.S. in trying to resolve Syria’s civil war. Although details about the agreement and how it will be implemented weren’t immediately available, the cease-fire is set to take effect Sunday at noon.”

Most interesting the report notes “Jordan and Israel also are part of the agreement, one of the officials said. The two U.S. allies both share a border with the southern part of Syria and have been concerned about violence from Syria’s civil war spilling over the border.”

Israel has been in a war of words with Hezbollah and Iran in recent weeks, saying “don’t test us” after spillover from Syria caused Israel to strike Syrian regime positions near the Golan in late June and early July. However a report at Haaretz says that Israel opposes Russia being responsible for ‘de-escalation’ or zones along the Golan. A US official met “ith senior Israeli officials about establishing de-escalation zones, otherwise known as safe zones, in southern Syria near the Israeli and Jordanian borders as part of an effort to end Syria’s civil war. Israel told Washington that it opposes having Russian forces supervise what happens in these zones, senior Israeli officials said.”

Add to this the report that “Syria was the main agenda item during a telephone conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday, media reports said. According to the Kremlin, the call was initiated by Netanyahu.” The London Times reported on Thursday that Israel “was urging Russia and the US to create a demilitarized zone in southern Syria where Hezbollah and other Iran-backed groups would not be permitted to operate.” The DMZ has also been called a “buffer zone.”

Israel is concerned that Iran and Hezbollah are building permanent bases in Syria and that Iran is manufacturing arms in Lebanon, Russia has indicated in recent months that it understand’s Israel’s concerns and wants closer cooperation with Israel. Trump had a two hour meeting with Putin on Friday, July 7.

So what is happening?

America is taking greater ownership of the Syria conflict?

After the failures of John Kerry in Syria it seemed the conflict would be bought out by Russia as the major player. This was made clear in the Astana talks and the failures at Geneva. But the latest 5th round in Astana ended without agreement. Russia has also been discussing Afrin with Turkey as Turkey makes noises about attacking the Kurdish canton alongside rebels it supports.

The US is looking for a role for the rebels it trained at al-Tanf and it knows the battle for Raqqa will likely take months. Meanwhile, the Syrian rebels have received support from Israel and Israel wants a buffer against Hezbollah and Iran on the border.

If the US and Russia announce a ceasefire and have discussed de-confliction zones and a buffer near Israel and Jordan, that means the US is buying back in to the Syrian civil war much more deeply than just dealing with the anti-ISIS operations. It also erodes Hezbollah’s influence. Jordan’s king recently visited Washington for the third time since Trump was elected. Reports said he discussed peace issues, but Syria may have been top of the agenda.

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 8.09.18 PM.png

Smoke rises from shelling near Quneitra in Syria next to the Israel Golan border in late June (Seth J. Frantzman)

Israel’s concerns

So if you read between the lines, the issue of a ceasefire in Southern Syria guaranteed by Russia is what caused the recent Netanyahu call. Russia may have been convinced to iron-out a clear buffer zone along the Israeli border. But what does the US get? Guarantees about Tanf? Jordan keeps its border quiet. The claim that “regional countries” are involved in the ceasefire should mean Jordan and Syria, but a suggestion of Israel’s involvement would raise Israel’s profile in relations to southern Syria. It means the formerly quiet trends relating to Israel and the Syrian Civil War, are coming into the light as Israel seeks a clear guarantees about the border.

Chronology of events:

July 1 King of Jordan in Washington for discussions with Trump

July 3 Syria announces ceasefire in south

July 6 Netanyahu calls Putin to discuss Syria

July 7 Trump and Putin meet for two hours 

July 9 Ceasefire scheduled to begin at noon

The key points of this latest announcement are:

  • Israel’s fears about Russia guaranteeing the ceasefire and what that means along the border
  • Jordan’s goals in Southern Syria
  • The next step after the ceasefire, further US-Russia discussions on Syria, for instance regarding Tanf garrison
  • Whether Israel and Jordan are actually mentioned in the agreement
  • How the ceasefire discussions mention Nusra front (Hayat Tahrir al Sham) and ISIS or other groups not involved?
  • The Syrian rebels point of view?
  • Iran and Hezbollah’s role in light of the ceasfire?
  • What it means for Afrin and what Afrin means for Raqqa?
  • Has Astana become less relevant? 

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