Heavy fighting erupted early Monday, July 2, in the southern Syrian town of Tafas. A rebel group suddenly joined ISIS’s local faction, the Khalid ibn al-Walid Army, sparking fresh clashes with Russian-backed Syrian and Hizballah forces. Reporting this unforeseen development, DEBKAfile’s sources note that it has added a new complication to the negotiations being conducted non-stop among the US, Russia, Israel, Jordan and the Assad regime in an effort to stem the warfare before it reaches the Israeli and Jordan borders of southwest Syria. As of Monday morning, the talks centered on a Russian proposal for the rebels to hand over their heavy and medium weapons against a guarantee that the Syrian army will stay out of their terrain. The rebels will be allowed to remain in charge of the local government offices they established in the war years, but the Russians insist on Assad regime civilian officials coming in to conduct daily affairs, including water and food supplies. Russian officers will oversee the transition process.
In their parallel negotiations with Israel, the Russians are stressing that these arrangements, if agreed on for the Daraa region on Jordan’s border, will be the model for Quneitra opposite Israel’s Golan.
Tafas lies northwest of Daraa and south of Nawa, which was the source of a major refugee exit to the Israel border over the weekend. The clash in Tafas therefore brings the battlefield closer to the Israeli border. The Russian brokers had counted on this town of 100,000 becoming the first important venue for their ceasefire-cum-surrender deal to take effect. But it was derailed by the local rebel leaders’ decision Sunday night to go over to the ISIS offshoot in preference to surrendering to Assad’s army.
The Khalid ibn al-Walid Army commands the Yarmuk junction of the Israeli-Jordanian borders opposite the southern Israeli Golan villages of Ne’ot Golan, Lahavot Habashan and Hamat Gader, (See attached map). Its estimated 2,500-3,000 fighters have now been augmented by several thousand Syrian rebels. The concern now is that this ramped-up fighting organization will attract more rebel groups, especially in the Quneitra region, and establish a solid new anti-Assad alliance in the southwest. This presents Israel with a dual threat: an aggressive army of fighters dedicated to ISIS rising on its Golan doorstep and a Syrian-Hizballah assault on Quneitra for cutting them down.