The collapse of the opposition in southern Syria is the final destruction of the originally constituted rebellion against President Bashar Assad. It is also a demonstration that the United States under President Donald Trump is no more invested in shaping the outcome in Syria than his predecessor, and marks the potential end of the diplomatic pact that had allowed Turkey to retain some sphere of influence unmolested by the pro-Syrian government coalition.
Turkey reversed its decision to try to overthrow Assad in the summer of 2016 as part of a strategic reassessment that prioritised countering the People’s Protection Units (YPG), a Syrian Kurdish force that had been gaining strength as a result of its partnership with the United States against Islamic State (ISIS). Turkey moved into Syria directly and to avoid fighting on all sides cut a deal with Assad’s patron, Russia, in which Turkey’s areas would be left alone and Turkey would curtail its support for rebels in Aleppo city, a resistance pocket that was eradicated in December 2016.
It was after Aleppo’s fall that the Astana process began, with Turkey, Russia, and Iran participating, ostensibly as a means of managing the conflict tactically and reducing violence. In September 2017, four “de-escalation zones” were demarcated—in Ghouta, northern Homs, Deraa, and Idlib. As with previous ceasefires, this turned into a mechanism to sequence Assad’s war.
In theory, Deraa should have been an immense challenge. The rebels had resisted far more successfully than their northern brethren infiltration by the jihadists and coalesced into a unified structure, the Southern Front, under U.S. guidance, a model of what the United States could have done to bolster its allies and defeat the radicals in Syria had it so chosen. Israel also supported some of these rebel factions and their civilian supporters.
Yet Deraa buckled quickly. After a merciless aerial campaign in the eastern countryside, Deraa city itself fell two weeks ago to the pro-Assad coalition, and Israel evacuated many of the Syrian Civil Defence (“White Helmets”), the medical first-responders.
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