Eleven years have passed since the beginning of the war in Syria, but its conflict continues to threaten Syria’s neighbors.
The recent developments in the south – from the killing of ISIS leader in the city of Daraa to the Syrian government’s brutal crackdown on the protests in Suwayda (Swaida) – can possibly develop into a broader conflict that would be explosive for Syria and its southern neighbors, especially Israel and Jordan.
Syria’s southwest, which sits at the intersection of Jordan and the Israeli Golan Heights, has been more stable for the last few years than Syria’s north. However, things are heating up in the south now due to the renewed military conflicts, Iran’s increasing influence and the emergence of ISIS in the city of Daraa.
ISIS IS BACK IN THE SOUTH
Before losing 95% of its territory in 2017, the Islamic State – known as ISIS – controlled about one-third of the Syrian territory, mainly in northern Syria where the organization took the city of Raqqa as its nominal capital. The U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM) announcement on Dec. 1 regarding the killing of an ISIS leader in southern Syria raised intriguing questions since he was the first key leader of the group to be found and killed in that region.
According to local reports, he was killed in the town of Jassem, in Daraa – 70 miles from Israel and a few miles from Jordan. The ISIS leader had sheltered with other jihadists in a compound in Daraa when they were surrounded by a Syrian opposition group that was armed and supported by the U.S. between 2013 to 2017.
Reports of ISIS’ increasing influence in southern Syria signal that the group continues to pose a significant challenge to the region and the world. ISIS presence in southern Syria is yet more evidence that the region is favorable for ISIS to conduct operations these days, as Syria continues to be a failed state with no international strategy to stabilize it.
Making matters worse is the growing influence of Iranian-backed militias that continue to operate and build military bases in southern Syria despite Israel’s military strikes against Iran’s presence in the area.
SWAIDA, ANOTHER SYRIAN CITY OUT OF ASSAD’S CONTROL
Another flashpoint is the Druze-majority town of Swaida in the south where, once again, protests erupted over worsening economic conditions. The protesters blamed the Syrian regime and Iran for the collapsing economy and lack of services in the city. They even called for the overthrow of Bashar al-Assad as president.
The crowd in Swaida chanted: “Syria is free, Iran get out! Syria is free, ISIS get out!”
The broader situation in Syria is not much better. Since the beginning of 2022, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened a military incursion into northeast Syria, targeting the cities controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces that hold thousands of ISIS prisoners in jails.
Economically, Syrians in all the cities are experiencing unprecedented hardships with the collapse of the Syrian pound to a new low, as 6,030 Syrian pounds equals $1 today compared to 50 Syrian pounds to each dollar before the 2011 war.
Swaida protests, the continued armed clashes in Daraa, and the chaos in northern Syria are all indicators that the ramifications of the Syrian war may actually worsen with time rather than disappear.
The Biden administration must have a coherent Syria policy influenced by other policies, such as the administration’s eagerness to reach a deal with Iran or maintain a balanced relationship with Turkey.
Syria is again a time bomb which may spark a new wave of refugees and a new generation of terrorist attacks that can seriously threaten Israel, Jordan and American interests in the region and Europe.
Without a U.S. strategy, there isn’t even a sliver of hope for Syria to be stable again. If left to Iran, Turkey and Russia, the country will be headed for a tragedy on the same scale of what happened in 2014 when ISIS emerged from the wreckage of Syria’s civil war.