Last week, Syrian rebels surrendered control of Deraa, the so-called cradle of the rebellion against Bashar al Assad’s regime. A military campaign by the regime and Russia culminated with the raising of the national flag over Deraa on July 12 near the mosque where early protests against the regime had erupted. As part of a deal with Russia, the rebels could choose between remaining in Deraa after handing over their heavy weaponry or being ferried to opposition strongholds in northern Syria. Some 500 fighters boarded 50 buses to the north.
The defeat could be the most consequential loss for the opposition since 2012. Deraa and its environs were the center of gravity for the remaining non-Islamist Syrian opposition forces. Moderate groups organized under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army endured attempts by Islamist and jihadist forces to dominate and replace nationalist forces, as had happened in most opposition areas throughout the country. The rebels’ defeat in Deraa, then, is a powerful blow to any viable moderate rebel forces in Syria.
The regime’s victory in Deraa adds momentum to a series of military and political gains made by Damascus and its allies. And, with all anti-government forces expelled from the Damascus suburbs, the rebel surrender in Deraa means the regime has secured the capital and removed any challenge to its heartlands in central and southern Syria.
Outsiders in Control
The political implications of the defeats in the capital’s suburbs and Deraa might be more profound for the rebels than for the regime. The expulsion of the rebels from Ghouta, near Damascus, gave birth to a new dynamic. The areas remaining beyond the regime’s control were almost completely under the influence of foreign powers who held sway over local forces (or, in the case of the region adjoining Israel’s borders, over Damascus through Russia). Anti-government forces became fully dependent on outsiders.
In eastern Syria, the United States and the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces were in control. In northern Syria, Turkey controlled two zones in Jarablus, Afrin and Idlib. In Deraa, Quneitra and Sweida, Israel had de facto veto power over any regime expansion in the area and prevented Iranian-backed forces from building bases near the Israeli and Jordanian borders.
In all three cases, Russia — not Damascus or Tehran — had existing deals with the foreign powers in control. That meant that further expansion of regime control was a matter of negotiation between Russia and the respective countries. In other words, the conflict had become almost completely decided by outsiders.
To make matters worse for the opposition, almost all the foreign players — including the rebels’ erstwhile backers — now see the survival of Assad and his regime as a given, or even as a potential benefit. Turkey has been working closely with Russia, since 2016, to de-escalate the conflict in the north, often in favor of the regime. Others — like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Israel and European countries — now hope that reduced pressure on the regime will make Tehran less important to Damascus and thus less influential in Syria.
A Victory for Moscow
The surrender in Deraa is also a breakthrough for Russia in handling a persistent problem for Damascus. The U.S., Turkish and Israeli areas of influence in Syria were once the last opportunity for foreign powers to pressure the regime. As these countries built their influence through interventions within Syria, the regime faced the question of how to expand its control without a military confrontation with foreign forces. But instead of demanding Russia’s compliance with an agreement on de-escalation zones within Syria, the United States, Israel and Jordan bowed to Russia’s pressure.
Thus, Deraa — an area the rebels had hoped the United States or Israel would protect, based on shared interests — is a precedent for Moscow to clear a path for Syrian regime forces to march into areas under U.S. and Turkish influence. Just as Moscow persuaded Israel, Jordan and the United States to accept the rebel surrender in Deraa, so it can persuade Washington in the east and Ankara in the north. Moscow can capitalize on the United States’ and Turkey’s distractions: Washington is more concerned with Iran, and Turkey is more concerned with Kurdish militias in Syria, than with weakening Assad’s regime.
In Deraa, the United States, Jordan and Israel gave up a valuable area to Russia, when they could have used it to negotiate more durable peace deals with Damascus and its patrons. Deraa could have been a bargaining chip in negotiations on issues like regime retributions, political prisoners and the safe return of displaced people. Russia will try to drive Turkey and the United States out of their remaining areas of influence in the same way, but it would be naïve to trust Russia with security and stability in Syria.
Assad’s regime still faces daunting challenges. Approximately 35 percent of Syria is still outside its control, protected by powerful forces like Washington and Ankara. Even if outside powers accept the regime and strike deals with its foreign patrons, Damascus will not control the entire country for quite some time. Meanwhile, for the rebels, the conflict will never be the same after Deraa. The war might not be over for the regime, but it is over for the opposition as we know it.
Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, focusing on militant Islam, Syria, Iraq, and the Gulf region. He is the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a New York Times and Washington Post bestseller, translated into more than a dozen foreign languages, and chosen as one of the Times of London’s Best Books of 2015 and The Wall Street Journal’s top 10 books on terrorism.