AMMAN — Despite the widespread reports on a growing competition between Russia and Iran in Syria, in general, current developments in the southern Daraa province seem not only to undermine the hopeful idea of a conflict, but also support the opposite argument that the alliance between Moscow and Tehran is intact.
On July 28, a group of Russian officers attended the graduation ceremony of a cohort of fighters that had undergone training in military camps run by the pro-Russia Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Corps in eastern Daraa. Although the presence of the Russian officers was positively interpreted by many of the Assad regime’s opponents, it coincided with an opposing and more serious development: Moscow’s silence over the deployment of the Fourth Division, known for its allegiance to Iran and for providing cover for Hezbollah in Syria, to the western countryside of Daraa since last June.
This deployment goes against the essence of the agreement between Russia, the United States, Jordan and Israel that, in 2018, allowed the government forces to seize the opposition-held territories in southern Syria. Per that agreement, Russia pledged to push Iranian militias, allied with the Assad regime forces, at least 40 kilometers away from the Jordanian border and the Syrian Golan Heights occupied by Israel.
Over the months that followed the Russian-sponsored “settlement” between the opposition factions and the government of Damascus in July 2018, Moscow closely monitored Iran’s growing influence in certain areas of the western countryside of Daraa and the countryside of Quneitra near the occupied Golan Heights. Lately, however, Russian silence over Iranian infiltration of the two areas has become increasingly obvious, especially at a time when Moscow continues to show support to the Eighth Brigade, which is led by the former opposition commander Ahmad al-Awdah and includes hundreds of former opposition members known for their hostility toward Iran’s presence and influence in southern Syria.
An attempt to create balance?
By supporting the Eighth Brigade and other military forces in Daraa and providing them with a margin of autonomy, Russia seems to be trying to create a balance with the Iranian-sponsored militias attempting to infiltrate southern Syria, especially as the Assad regime is unable to confront the Iranians who have controlled senior positions in some of the regime’s key security and military institutions.
Accordingly, the reconstruction of the Eighth Brigade and Ahmad al-Awdah’s efforts to expand it in eastern Daraa can be explained as a response to the Iranian militias’ deployment ‒ under the cover of the Fourth Division led by Maher al-Assad ‒ on the other side of the Daraa province.
According to a former senior military commander of the opposition factions, who currently resides in Daraa countryside, the shift in Russia's position took place when the government's military enforcements began to arrive in the vicinity of Tafas, west of Daraa, in mid-May in response to the killings of nine internal security officers in Muzayrib. The attack was carried out by a lone commander of the "settlement factions" that consist of former opposition fighters in the area who joined the settlement agreement of 2018.
The shift, however, is towards the “obvious facilitation of enhancing Iranian influence rather than the opposite,” the commander told Syria Direct on the condition of anonymity for security reasons.
Similarly, a member of the central committee of Daraa, which is responsible for negotiations with the regime and the representatives of Russia, stressed that “the Russians are trying to maintain peace [in southern Syria] without addressing the spread of Iranian militias.” Further, “you feel that there is implicit collusion between them [the Russians and Iranians],” he told Syria Direct.
Anton Mardasov, a non-resident research fellow at the Russian International Affairs Council (RIAC) in Moscow and the Syria Program at the Middle East Institute in Washington DC, agreed with the aforementioned view.
Mardasov believes that Moscow, which pledged to limit the Iranian influence, is not trying to fight Iran in southern Syria but rather wants to simulate a semblance of compromise and position itself as a player who keeps its word.” At the same time, “the Iranians are also trying to approach their presence pragmatically, and they are succeeding since the Fourth Division and the Republican Guard are institutions that, unlike the Fifth Corps, are an integral part of the system. Therefore, Iranian investments in these structures are justified,” he told Syria Direct.
Also, as Maher al-Assad “began to unite former rebels into the 4th Division,” Mardasov added, this has led to “competition.” In al-Awdah Eighth Brigade, Syrians find an opportunity to express their rage at the deteriorating living conditions with most local organizations and councils no longer providing any services after the settlement with Damascus.
The Future of the Eighth Brigade
After Ahmad al-Awdah’s statement on June 23, that “in the next few days we will announce that Houran [Daraa province] is one body, one entity and one army that will be the smallest, yet most potent tool to protect Syria,” a military training was launched that included around 900 new fighters in the Eighth Brigade.
The fact that, unlike the old members of the Brigade, these fighters were unpaid and were not on formal contracts, compelled activists to believe that al-Awdah’s plan to expand the Brigade was an impromptu move made without Moscow’s approval. However, the attendance of Russian military police officers at the graduation ceremony of the new fighters in Busra al-Sham promoted the opposite argument: that al-Awdah’s move is approved by Moscow, especially given that the ceremony saw fighters chant against the Syrian regime.
The member of the central committee noted, however, that the Russian officers’ presence at the ceremony “has no significance; they are only there to observe.”
The same sentiment was echoed by the former military commander, who indicated that the Russian attendance was nothing but “propaganda, intended to show that freedoms are also possible under Russia.” Further, he added, “some of the Russian officials that we have met consider the Free Army’s militants to be armed militias whom they do not want to empower or support, but instead want to circumscribe them in preparation for getting rid of them,” rendering the Russian aim behind establishing the Brigade a “temporary containment of some of the forces in the South and an attempt to invest their energies in the interests of Russia and to pit forces against each other and create pawns in hands of the Russians.”
Marsadov agreed that “Moscow originally created it as a structure on which to rely during operations. From the point of view of Russian officers, most parts of the Syrian army and militias are sloppy units that can leave the front at any time.” However, “as the intensity of hostilities decreases, the need for the maximum possible number of instruments of influence increases; the Fifth Corps is an image project for Moscow. “
As such, Russia, according to Marsadov, “is using democratic sentiments in the Eighth Brigade of the Fifth Corps to imitate a democratic approach to a political settlement and, paradoxically, to legitimize the Syrian regime in the presidential elections in 2021.”
“Such opposition does not threaten the Assad regime, but Russia can use such ‘islands of freedom’ not only to demonstrate freedom of speech but also to attract investment in these gray areas and bypass Western sanctions.”
Embers under the ashes
It seems that the longer the settlement lasts, the more Russia’s direct role in many affairs in southern Syria recedes, especially affairs that do not pose a threat to the 2018 agreement, such as people’s grievances about the inadequacy of services that had drawn the Russian military police’s attention at the beginning, but did not invoke any responses most of the time. Currently, Russia is not concerned with such issues and many other similar issues.
According to the member of the central committee in Daraa, while Russia’s attention in southern Syria seems to mostly revolve around “using the settlement agreement to appear as a key player in the area by maintaining a fragile calm without bombings, raids and missiles,” there are “embers under the ashes and it won’t be long before they ignite.”
The former opposition military commander shared this prediction, adding that “things are heading towards popular escalation against the Russians” in particular, “and there will be demands to expel them for their failure in the [settlement] issue”.
The report was originally published in Arabic and translated into English by Ahmad Elamine.