In recent weeks, Bashar al-Assad has initiated a military offensive near the southwestern city of Deraa—fewer than ten miles from the Jordanian border—where fighting had stopped last year following a U.S.-Russian “deconfliction” agreement. Now Assad’s troops are redeploying throughout the area, some of them just as close to the Israeli border. Among them are units of various Iran-backed Shiite militias, including Hizballah. Both Israel and Jordan have asked Russia to keep Iran and its proxies from getting so close to their doorsteps—and the IDF has used persistent military force to that end—but Hanin Ghaddar and Phillip Smyth suspect that these efforts will be to little avail:
Currently, Israel and Jordan seem willing to allow the Syrian army’s presence in the south. Although it is no secret that Iran’s proxies are integrated with regime forces, this does not seem to bother the two neighbors so long as all such proxies separate themselves from the army and withdraw after the Deraa offensive.
Yet the presumed guarantors of this withdrawal do not seem capable of actually guaranteeing it. Russia has shown that it cannot [or will not] move Iranian proxies on the ground. And even if Hizballah and other militias do withdraw a few kilometers away from the frontier, this would not resolve broader concerns about Tehran’s long-term strategic game in Syria. Iranian forces have withdrawn and redeployed many times in many places in Syria, and any move they make to appease Russia would no doubt be temporary.
As for the notion that Assad will push Iran out after achieving victory, the return of his forces to the south means just the opposite. In a major step toward fulfilling Tehran’s long-term goals, the presence of Syrian forces would serve as a conduit for Hizballah and other militias to quietly redeploy in the south anytime they like, without having to deal with opposition pockets.
Therefore, to avoid escalation in south Syria, Assad’s forces should not be allowed to reoccupy the area after the battle for Deraa, and Russian forces should not be trusted to act as guarantors of Iranian withdrawal. The only guaranteed way of keeping Iran out of the south and far from the Golan and Jordan would be a third-party buffer zone along Syria’s southern borders. Formulating the contours of such a force would of course be challenging, since the Trump administration is set against keeping U.S. troops in Syria, and past international peacekeeping missions designed to constrain Hizballah elsewhere have failed (e.g., the UN Interim Force in Lebanon). Yet the line distinguishing Iranian and Syrian forces grows thinner every day, so the need to pursue such alternatives is urgent.