On November 8, Amman, Washington, and Moscow concluded an agreement to expand the “de-escalation zones” in southern Syria that had been created in a July 7 deal among the three parties. A key provision designates an “exclusionary zone” from which foreign forces—in this case those of Iran and Hizballah—must withdraw. But, even if Iran and Russia abide by their part of the bargain, these terms “will ultimately preserve rather than roll back Iran’s long-term position,” write Genevieve Casagrande, Patrick Hamon, and Bryan Amoroso. The experience of the July agreement shows how:
The [newly created] buffer zone at its maximum extent places foreign forces up to 30km away from the Syrian-Jordanian border and Golan Heights. . . . [But] Iran has set conditions to preserve its safe haven in southern Syria. Iran and Lebanese Hizballah initially withdrew many of their foreign forces from areas along the Syrian-Jordanian border after the [first] “de-escalation zone” went into effect in July. However, Iran left behind friendly local paramilitary groups and a small number of foreign fighters to continue to cultivate and recruit local groups not covered by the exclusion zone but ultimately subordinate to Iran. Iran is also continuing its build-up on the outskirts of this zone, which places its forces less than an hour drive from the Golan Heights. . . .
The deal likewise will not prevent Iran from developing permanent military basing in Syria, another Israeli redline. . . .
Al-Qaeda, [meanwhile], has exploited the de-escalation zone to develop a new durable safe haven along the Syrian-Jordanian border. Al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Hayat Tahrir al-Sham will capitalize on the diminishing external support for vetted anti-Assad-regime opposition groups to expand its footprint in southern Syria. The Trump administration issued orders that will reportedly end all covert support to opposition groups in Syria by December 2017. The cutoff will lead to the cancellation of salaries for thousands of rebel fighters even as opposition groups and affiliated governance structures are already struggling to maintain basic security and infrastructure—such as prisons and courthouses—across southern Syria. . . .