'Cautious calm' in southern Syria ceasefire despite regime violations

'Lines of control' demarcating which areas will be held by rebel fighters during the ceasefire and which will be held by the regime have yet to be finalised

A Free Syrian Army fighter walks past damaged buildings inside a former Palestinian refugee camp in a rebel-held part of the southern city of Deraa, Syria weeks before the fragile ceasefire brokered by the US and Russia took effect in July 2017. Alaa Al-Faqir / Reuters
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A US and Russian-negotiated ceasefire appeared to be more or less holding in southern Syria on Monday, 24 hours after it came into effect.

Rebels and human rights monitors reported several violations by regime forces, with sporadic artillery fire in the countryside around Deraa city, and exchanges of heavy machine-gun fire between rival factions in the town of Quneitra, near the border with Israel.

But the situation was significantly calmer than it had been in recent weeks, when regime forces and rebel factions clashed in the Manshiyyeh neighbourhood of Deraa, and fighters loyal to president Bashar Al Assad launched a surprise assault on rebel-held Jumruk, a strategic border crossing post between Syria and Jordan.

Rebels successfully repelled that assault in the early hours of June 20, and narrowly maintained control of the frontier and the critical Damascus-Amman highway.

Compared to that intensive fighting, which included dozens of air strikes, artillery and rocket bombardment and urban street fighting, Monday was quiet.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based monitoring group, said the opening hours of the ceasefire were characterised by “calmness” across much of the area included, which covers a broad swath of territory from the border with Israel and Jordan, up to Syria’s border with Iraq.

Major Issam Al Rayes, a spokesperson for the rebels’ Southern Front alliance, said it was too early to call the ceasefire deal a success, but that a “cautious calm” was holding — something he credited to the direct involvement of the US and Russian governments.

“The guarantor countries [the US and Russia] are the most powerful ones [in the conflict] but there have been violations,” he said.

Jordan has also played a role in brokering the ceasefire deal. Mohammad Momani, the Jordanian minister of state for media affairs, said the ceasefire was designed to create a suitable environment in which a permanent solution to the Syrian crisis could be found. Jordan has been hard hit by the uprising-turned-war in its neighbour.

Mr Momani said ceasefire lines had already been agreed. But Maj Al Rayes said "lines of control" demarcating which areas are to be held by rebel fighters during the ceasefire and which are to be held by the regime, had not yet been finalised.

That means both sides still have an incentive to win new territory before the lines are set. The recent battles in Manshiyyeh and Jumruk were driven by the same logic of grabbing territory before the long-anticipated ceasefire came into being.

The current ceasefire was agreed by US president Donald Trump and his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin, on Friday and announced the same day. It came into effect at noon on Sunday.

According to a statement released at the time by Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov, the US and Russia had "promised to ensure that all groups there comply with the ceasefire" and "provide humanitarian access”.

If successful, the ceasefire will allow for the creation of a more permanent de-escalation or "safe" zone in southern Syria, which the Trump administration has been pushing for months.

"This deal has the weight of the Trump team behind it and it is a big step forward to enacting one of the president Trump foreign policy promises during his campaign for election, which was to build safe zones in Syria,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Washington-based Centre for a New American Security, and an analyst at the Jamestown Foundation, also based in Washington.

At present there are few additional precise details about the ceasefire, or any possible lines of control or de-escalation zones. In particular, there are few details about how such lines of control or zones will be enforced and what sanctions the US or Russia may impose on either side breaching them. US air power and Russian military police may both play a role. Last month, US jets struck regime military targets near the Iraqi border in the south-eastern area of the ceasefire zone when they strayed too close to US military forces training rebels.

Rebels connected to the Military Operations Command (MOC), a secretive centre staffed by the rebels’ western and Arab backers in Amman, say they have been told not to initiate any assault on regime lines during the ceasefire but that they should return fire if attacked by pro-government forces and defend themselves robustly.

They have also been told to expect more details on the terms and conditions of the ceasefire this week.

According to unconfirmed reports circulating around members of the Southern Front, the ceasefire deal requires that Iranian and Hizbollah forces stay at least 40 kilometres away from the border with Jordan and Israel.

Elite Iranian Revolutionary Guard forces, as well as Iranian militias and fighters from Hizbollah, have played a central role in the latest fighting in Manshiyyeh, according to rebel intelligence assessments.

Colonel Abu Al Majd, who heads the Southern Front’s efforts to fight ISIL in the area, said the situation in Syria's south was heading towards a political — rather than a military — solution.

“With the de-escalation, we will shift our military focus towards the Yarmouk basin to defeat ISIL,” he added.

Western and Arab-backed rebels have been stretched thin in Syria’s south, fighting both pro-regime forces and ISIL in a war on two fronts that they do not have the resources to win. With rebel units tied up in Manshiyyeh, ISIL has been able to push back against opposition forces tasked with its defeat.

Despite an unclaimed bomb attack that killed four ISIL-affiliated commanders in the south last month, the group has continued to hold on to an expanded realm in south-western Syria under the command of new self-declared "emirs", Karem Al Masri and Abu Tayem.

* Phil Sands contributed reporting from Boston, US