DAMASCUS (Dispatches) -- Militants have begun to leave the southern province of Daraa following the implementation of a Russia-brokered truce deal, according to a war monitor.
Daraa was recaptured by the Syrian government in 2018 but attempts to impose the state’s control over the Daraa al-Balad district provoked a pushback from armed terrorists.
There have been clashes - including artillery exchanges - between the two sides since late July. These have been the biggest challenge yet to the Russia-brokered deal that returned Daraa province to government control but allowed militants to stay on in some areas.
But on Tuesday, militants boarded buses to take them to terrorist-held territory in the north, the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said, suggesting talks had succeeded.
These evacuations are a key part of the ceasefire accord that also calls on militants who stay in the province to hand over their weapons, the Observatory said.
Forces linked to the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are expected to deploy inside Daraa al-Balad under the agreement, it added
Syria’s Al-Watan newspaper also reported the start of evacuations, saying that “implementation of the truce agreement has begun”.
Earlier on Tuesday, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) said that 38,600 internally displaced persons are registered in and around Daraa, with most having fled from Daraa al-Balad.
U.S. Exit From Syria?
According to U.S. news publication Foreign Policy, the Arab world has taken note of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and is starting to wonder whether Syria—where the United States still has several hundred troops—will be next.
“The Biden administration has already given indications it is willing to look away from Persian Gulf Arab states reviving relations with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad rather than actively prevent them from doing so,” it wrote Wednesday.
“This marks a slight but significant shift in U.S. policy, as represented by the 2019 Caesar Syria Civilian Protection Act. With Washington showing a diminished appetite for enforcing Syria’s isolation—including through military means—some Arab countries are starting to bring Syria in from its diplomatic isolation,” it added.
In recent months, Persian Gulf Arab states—notably, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia—have deepened their engagement with the Syrian government, though to varying degrees and in pursuit of different goals.
There are limits to how far Persian Gulf Arab states can advance their relationships, which are heavily influenced by the Biden administration’s nascent Syria policy and the still-extensive reach of the Caesar Act’s sanctions. Given U.S. President Joe Biden’s policy toward Afghanistan, they will likely prepare for Washington’s exit from Syria, Foreign Policy said.
“After all, it’s hard to find anyone in the U.S. administration who publicly argues Syria is a vital U.S. interest,” it added.
According to the publication, some Arab leaders, including from Jordan, the UAE, and others have lobbied at the highest levels in Washington in favor of sanctions waivers to support expanding their outreach to Syria.
It is tempting to characterize this outreach as pure realpolitik by Arab countries—a bid to win influence in Syria and lead the reconstruction process. However, each Arab state’s motivation differs, and the initiatives they have undertaken are better considered “prepositioning” moves ahead of a forthcoming political settlement rather than definitive steps toward normalizing relations with Assad under the current status quo, it added.
“Indeed, reaching an understanding with Assad would be far too bitter a pill to swallow, especially for Saudi Arabia, given the personal animus felt toward him and his immediate family. Although the Emirati and Bahraini leaderships are less squeamish and, indeed, the former has spoken of brotherly relations that date back to the 1970s, the current environment would be unforgiving and the rewards unlikely to outweigh the risks and consequences of normalization.”
According to Foreign Policy, Persian Gulf Arab state efforts to rebuild relations with the Syrian government are an attempt to reestablish and cultivate working relations after a 10-year hiatus.
“Gone are the days when Persian Gulf Arab states would simply turn up to regional crises with an open checkbook; that approach failed miserably multiple times, including in Lebanon and Iraq, as Persian Gulf Arab nations were outpaced and outmaneuvered by regional competitors like Iran.”
Oman has maintained high-level diplomatic relations with Syria throughout the conflict and has recently increased its diplomatic presence in the country. Although it lacks the political capital to push for Syria’s Arab League suspension to be lifted, it has aligned itself with the UAE, Bahrain, and Jordan to pursue that goal.
Meanwhile, the UAE has become more muscular since reopening its embassy in Damascus in 2018, motivated by its goal to roll back Turkish influence as part of its broader struggle with Ankara throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and Red Sea region. For example, using the pretext of COVID-19 humanitarian diplomacy during 2020, the UAE engaged with Damascus to encourage Assad to break the Russian-mediated truce in Idlib, Syria, to fight Turkish-backed militants.