Syrians help a man pulled out from the rubble of a destroyed building following a reported Russian air strike on July 22, 2019 on Maaret al-Numan in Syria's northwestern Idlib province in the latest violence to plague the opposition bastion, as the Damascus regime and its reported Russian ally have stepped up their deadly bombardment of Idlib since late April. - Sixteen civilians were among 19 people killed and at least 45 others were wounded in the air raid that hit "a wholesale vegetable market in the town of Maaret al-Numan", according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The death toll could still rise as many of those wounded are in a critical condition and some people are still trapped under rubble, the Britain-based monitor said. (Photo by Abdulaziz KETAZ / AFP)

Most of the media focus in Syria in recent weeks has been on the intense combat along the frontlines of Greater Idlib. An offensive lasting several weeks by pro-government forces, supported by a massive Russian bombing campaign, has resulted in a high number of casualties among government troops while achieving little. The situation has deteriorated to the point where Russia is now allegedly deploying special forces to bolster Syrian formations on the ground.

Amid all this, one of the most interesting stories of the year has continued to unfold in southern Syria. On July 13, a convoy of Russian military police on patrol in Daraa province hit a roadside bomb while traveling between the towns of Kharaba and Maaraba, about 10 kilometers from the border with Jordan. No casualties were reported, but it was the first such attack on Russian forces in the region.

This was merely the latest development in a violent trend for Daraa. Once a rebel stronghold, the area was brought back under government control in July 2018. After a Russian-brokered evacuation deal, rebels surrendered their heavy weapons and were told to choose between being transferred to Idlib or reintegration into nominally autonomous pro-government security formations.

Shortly after the deal, President Bashar al-Assad’s regime reneged on the amnesty, breaking previous promises by arresting and conscripting reconciled insurgents for operations in the north of the country. This quickly engendered a new wave of insurgency, scattered at first but steadily growing.

A map posted in April by opposition activist network ETANA showing attacks on regime forces in the past nine months included no fewer than 30 incidents. An article that same month in the American magazine Foreign Policy described the growing presence of ISIS in southern Syria, with up to 1,500 fighters smuggled into the area from the eastern Syrian desert in the previous months.

On July 17, four days after the roadside bomb exploded on the Russian servicemen, an improvised explosive device (IED) struck President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces near the town of Yaduda, reportedly killing five and wounding 16 in the largest single casualty attack to date.

All this would appear to be tangential to Russia’s priorities in Syria, were it not for the fact that Moscow has sought to use Daraa to showcase how well Russian control is working in the country. This was one of the three major de-escalation zones (the others being Eastern Ghouta and north Homs) from which Russia then engineered and safeguarded a rebel withdrawal. South Syria was also the arena for the high-stakes competition between Israel and Iran last year, involving dozens of Israeli airstrikes versus a growing deployment of Iranian men and materiel to the border area.

Russia and Iran have increasingly been at odds in Syria as their goals diverge ever more evidently

Russia trumpeted its role as a go-between and promised to remove pro-Iranian forces, reducing the risk of a larger-scale Israeli operation. To demonstrate commitment to making the region secure, Moscow then sent at least one battalion of military police to the United Nations Line of Contact, the de facto border between Syria and Israel, where the unit soon engaged in high-profile escorts of UN convoys and joint patrols with UN peacekeepers. Israel seems to have been mollified for the time being, but it will not remain so if an entirely new threat emerges.

Against this backdrop, the reports about who was responsible for bombing the Russian convoy are even more intriguing. Numerous sources claim that pro-Iran militants were behind the attack, an allegation still very much unconfirmed but of particular interest given recent trends.

Russia and Iran have increasingly been at odds in Syria as their goals diverge ever more evidently. Disagreements over smuggling routes and Iranian proselytization in Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria have occasionally boiled over into open confrontation. At the same time, Iran has kept away from the joint Russian-Assad-regime assault on north Hama and northeast Latakia. In January, reliable sources (including Russian media such as Novaya Gazeta) reported heavy firefights between pro-Iranian and pro-Russian forces in Hama, with estimated casualties of up to 200.

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Meanwhile, it seems increasingly probable that the contingent of Russian military police will appear in the crosshairs of both pro-Iran and rebel forces. Given Iran’s much stronger position on the ground in Syria, with effective command over tens of thousands of militiamen, no amount of Moscow-led restructuring of Syrian forces is likely to shift this balance fundamentally. It’s also hard to see how the situation in Daraa can be alleviated.

Popular anger against the Assad regime is growing, and with it, insurgent activity, in much the same fashion as it did in 2011 and 2012. By deploying Russian military police previously in parts of Syria, Moscow has had some success in curbing the regime’s abuses. But there are no signs as yet of any efforts to rein in Damascus in the south. For Vladimir Putin and Bashar al-Assad, southern Syria promises only more headaches.

This article was provided to Asia Times by Syndication Bureau, which holds copyright.

Neil Hauer

Neil Hauer is a security analyst based in Yerevan, Armenia. His work focuses on, among other things, politics, minorities and violence in the Caucasus. Follow him on Twitter @NeilPHauer.

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