The cease-fire in southern Syria went into effect Sunday, and it seems all sides involved in the fighting there are taking care to ensure it stays in place. The trickle of errant shells into Israeli territory has come to a halt, and a deceptive silence has returned to the Golan Heights border.
The agreement is part of a process led by Russia and the United States to stifle the flames of war in Syria and possibly bring an end to the fighting there. Within this framework, the Russians, along with Turkey and Iran, and now Jordan and the U.S. — and apparently Israel as well — are acting to establish four de-escalation zones, which will serve as a de facto partition of Syria between Syrian President Bashar Assad and his rivals.
Alongside the 25% of Syria that Assad still controls, in which around three-quarters of the population live, four rebel-controlled zones will be established, under Turkish and Jordanian influence. These zones — in Syria’s north, in the center, near Damascus, and in the south — may be under Russian and American influence in the future.
American and Russian military officials met in Amman in recent weeks to delineate the demarcation and separation lines between the area in southern Syria that is to remain under the control of the regime and the areas, including near the border with Israel, where rebel control will be maintained. Once these points were agreed, it was possible to laud the accomplishment and announce the cease-fire, in the hope that this time the players will find it difficult to violate the agreement in an effort to improve their positions, as they did in previous instances.
The big winner in this Russian-led process is, of course, Assad. He has been assured he will remain in power, and the American threat to his rule, if such a threat ever really existed in the first place, has been removed from the agenda. The rebels, too, have something to gain from the arrangement, since in the short run, it will provide an end to the Russian-Iranian-Syrian pressure cooker that had pushed them ever closer to almost-certain defeat. For the rebels, this is a short-term achievement, but for Assad, the deal offers the necessary breathing room to — when the time comes — renew fighting and regain control of Syria.
Another winner is Russian President Vladmir Putin, who with Washington’s blessing has turned Russia into a kingmaker in Syria. The Americans, on the other hand, are still focused on the fight against Islamic State and have no strategy or plan of action for the future of Syria, and certainly not for the south of the country that borders Israel and Jordan.
On the same day the armistice was declared in southern Syria, the world learned that after eight long months of fighting, Mosul in Iraq had been captured by the Iraqi Army, three years after Islamic State captured the city and marked the establishment of a caliphate over large areas of Syria and Iraq.
While the images out of Mosul have shown Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi surrounded by his fighters, in the coming days, we will be exposed to other images — those of Shiite militiamen supported by Iran and Iranian commanders celebrating amidst what remains of the city. Through these images, we will learn who the real winner is in the game being played in both war-torn countries.
Israel has repeatedly underscored its red lines regarding an Iranian presence on the Golan Heights. But while Russia is attentive to Israel’s concerns, it will not be persuaded to disengage from Iran. The Russians, as well as Assad, need the Iranian forces to ensure Assad’s continuing rule in Syria. As a result, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could attempt to keep the Iranians out of Syria, let alone succeed.
The cease-fire on the Golan Heights and the establishment of a rebel-controlled buffer zone that serves to keep the Iranians away from the border with Israel and Jordan is without a doubt a significant tactical achievement. But it is a temporary achievement that does not change the big picture in Syria, which is being filled with the colors of Iran and the militias it supports. As in the case of the Hezbollah threat from Lebanon, Israel could discover that to distance this threat from the border fence, it will be forced to accept an Iranian presence in the heart of Syria, a presence that casts a shadow over the Golan Heights and beyond.