MESOP OPINION : What really happened in Jordan: behind the scenes of the Syrian buffer zone proposal

Albawaba news – 7.3.2014 – By Youssef Harb – As the conflict in Syria rages on, Jordan, the U.S., and the Syrian National Coalition propose the implementation of buffer zones. (AFP/File)There is a huge gap between the dreams of the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and the plans of the countries that back it – especially the United States – regarding creating a buffer zone in the south of Syria. The SNC, along with its Gulf allies, wants to establish a platform for a subsequent military assault on Damascus that would completely reverse the tide of the current battles.

However, the Americans want to use it to put pressure on the regime and force it to make concessions in any future round of the Geneva talks, believing that a military victory for either side is impossible. Following recent meetings held in Jordan, SNC leaders returned to their bases in Europe and Istanbul with the impression that heating up the southern front would be a prelude for a new chapter in the military showdown with Damascus. This phase, the SNC believes, would go as far as changing the balance of power, which is currently tipped in favor of the regime, or at the very least, alter it in the opposition’s favor.

Al-Akhbar received information from sources in the SNC directly involved in the meetings in Jordan held between SNC leaders, figures in the armed Syrian opposition, and Jordanian and U.S. officials, to discuss plans for a buffer zone.

The SNC’s view is that for this zone to be effective, it must include the so-called southern-border triangle, that is, the borders with the occupied Golan, Lebanon, and Jordan. The main goal of the zone, according to the sources, would be to create an area that is completely outside the control of regime forces, requiring the following measures:

First: Purging the areas currently controlled by the opposition from regime-controlled pockets, before beginning an operation to expand opposition-controlled territory until the buffer zone in question is fully formed. It is in this context that the battles have been raging for the past few days in a number of villages between Quneitra and Daraa, with the militant groups trying to seize control of these territories.

The Southern Front, a recently established alliance comprised of 49 different armed factions, and which is being relied upon in no small measure for establishing the buffer zone, includes a large number of extremist Islamist groups. Second: After cleansing opposition-controlled areas, work begins on pushing back regime forces by at least 40 km from the border with Jordan and Occupied Palestine. This range would effectively incapacitate Syrian artillery, and effectively extending the southern buffer zone to the edges of the Damascus governorate and the capital’s southern countryside.

According to sources, militant groups would also benefit from the already existing buffer zone imposed through Security Council resolutions 338 in 1974, at a length of ten kilometers from the border with the occupied territories. As per leaked reports, there was no equivocation about the intention of the armed opposition to take advantage of the existing buffer zone with the occupied Golan Heights, which is nearly free from government forces, to tighten their control of the area.

According to SNC sources as well, logistical preparations for the opposition military formations are nearly complete. In addition, they say, special training carried out by Jordanian intelligence with direct help from U.S. Special Forces is now in its final stages, while the majority of trained fighters are ready to engage in battle and awaiting a green light.

Yet this green light is hindered by a complicated situation that the SNC is trying to circumvent by betting on drastic changes in the U.S. policy on Syria. Furthermore, SNC sources say that armed groups are currently unable to fight regime forces and Hezbollah unless they are provided with advanced weapons, including anti-tank and anti-aircraft equipment.

Sources stated that, “Despite obtaining a limited number of anti-tank missiles, the main problem that remains is the Syrian air force, which can reach even the border with Jordan and the edges of the buffer zone in the Golan without any deterrent.” The sources thus link the success of the SNC’s plan to disrupting the ability of the Syrian air force to provide air cover for the zone in question, by imposing a no-fly zone or by supplying the militants with anti-aircraft missiles.

Meanwhile, the SNC is wagering on a change in the U.S. position, “which has so far refused to supply the Syrian opposition with strategic anti-aircraft weapons.” In the opinion of some SNC leaders, the U.S. position will inevitably change. Some in the SNC go as far as betting on a Russian intervention in Ukraine, “which would leave the West, and the Americans in particular, with no excuse to not intervene militarily in Syria in response.”

Ultimately, however, the most intractable obstacle to establishing a buffer zone for the American and Jordanian sides are the radical Islamist groups in the area, including al-Nusra Front, which has a heavy presence in the regions in question.

The Jordanians are concerned of the fallout of the radical Islamist presence on the kingdom, which is why Amman sees any buffer zone as a solution to the crisis of the Syrian refugees on its territory, rather than a military staging ground.

The American concern, in the meantime, has to do with Israel and its nervousness over the presence of unpredictable groups along its borders. Particularly when the Southern Front, a recently established alliance comprised of 49 different armed factions, and which is being relied upon in no small measure for establishing the buffer zone, includes a large number of extremist Islamist groups.