For others in Syria’s conflict, Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed “is a benign tumor — it doesn’t show up on the X-rays”

While the Islamic State is under intense pressure and falling back in Syria’s north, its affiliate Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed survives in a pocket in the southwest of the country.

Syria Direct’s Madeline Edwards, Waleed Khaled a-Noufal, and Alaa Nassar — with contributions from residents and from others like EA WorldView — ask why no one is acting to remove the ISIS group from the area.

….Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed is literally backed into a corner. The nearest Islamic State territory to JKW’s isolated enclave is some 260 kilometers northeast, in distant Homs province. A “wealth” of important water wells, in addition to the Yarmouk Basin’s location along the Israeli and Jordanian borders, mean the region is moderately strategic, says Ibrahim al-Jabawi of the Syrian Media Organization, a Southern Front- affiliated news, but not strategic enough for a sustained battlefront.

Geographically, JKW’s territory in southwest Daraa is part of the Yarmouk River Basin, comprising several plains with two deep valleys cutting through them—making the area difficult to invade by rival militias.

Equally crucial is JKW’s “human geography,” Chris Kozak, a research analyst at the Washington, DC-based Institute for the Study of War, tells Syria Direct. Unlike areas of eastern Syria, where ranks of the Islamic State are drawn in part from foreign fighters streaming in from the Arab world, Europe and Asia, JKW is composed primarily of local residents with deep tribal ties to the area.

“Expelling [these fighters] from their own hometowns is very difficult,” adds Kozak.

A handful of unclaimed airstrikes since June have killed top-tier JKW commanders within the Yarmouk Basin. But if the intention was to wipe out the militia, thousands of locally born fighters are still operating on the ground today.

“I’m not going to compare [JKW fighters] to a Hydra, where if you kill one, two more pop up,” says Scott Lucas, founder of the Middle East-focused site EA Worldview, and a professor of International Politics at the University of Birmingham. “But at this point, [JKW] can still fill their ranks, even if some of their better commanders have been killed.”

The result is a Southern Front both unable, due to uneven resources, and unwilling, owing to a complex web of familial ties, to launch any sort of sustained offensive to drive out JKW from its Yarmouk Basin stronghold.

Villages and towns inside western Daraa province today witness small clashes “from time to time” with JKW fighters but seemingly no earnest battles to crush the IS affiliate, Nader Dabo, a spokesman for the opposition-run Nawa Military Council, tells Syria Direct. He blames the lack of a sustained anti-JKW offensive on “a lack of ammunition.”

“Weak” financial and military support for the Southern Front leaves the opposition group largely “on its own”, particularly after US President Donald Trump ended a CIA program in July that funded Syrian rebel groups, says James Miller, managing editor of the Syria-, Ukraine- and Russia-focused news site Interpreter.

Today, Southern Front rebels simply “cannot afford to fight another enemy” — that enemy being JKW, adds Miller.

“Why pick a fight [with JKW]?” says EA Worldview’s Scott Lucas. “The Southern Front’s priority is always going to be the regime.”

So where, then, does the Southern Front’s focus lie? Since the announcement of an internationally brokered de-escalation deal for southern Syria in July, once-restive Daraa Province is now relatively quiet. Intense airstrikes, as well as ground and artillery battles that flattened rebel-held districts in the provincial capital earlier this year have subsided as displaced people begin to return.

Confident in a semblance of peace — or at least an absence of regime and Russian airstrikes — other residents in the rebel-held countryside have begun rebuilding their crushed, bombed-out homes.

But Assad’s forces have unrealized goals in Daraa Province that are poised to open a new confrontation with the already worn-out Southern Front. Among the regime’s likely priorities is the Nasib border crossing with Jordan, currently held by opposition forces in southern Daraa province. Both Damascus and Amman are receptive to the idea of reopening the crossing, should Assad’s forces retake the Syrian side—a move that would slice rebel-held rural Daraa Province in two.

“The Syrian government is insistent they’re going to take back every inch of Syria,” says Joshua Landis, head of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma, and founder of the influential blog Syria Comment.

“But it probably is true for the south, along the Jordan border and is only a matter of time before Syria takes back those regions and destroys whatever Arab militias are remaining in that area.”…

Where JKW poses immediate, mortal dangers to the lives of thousands of people living within its territory, it appears to pose a minor threat to neighboring, rival Southern Front forces who in turn have nothing compelling them to fight the extremist group.

What remains today in the remote Yarmouk Basin is essentially an anomaly: a relatively inconsequential outgrowth of IS that receives little attention in the shadow of its much larger, yet waning, parent organization in Syria’s eastern Raqqa and Deir e-Zor provinces.

“For now, until JKW makes a move, I think everyone’s going to allow the situation to remain contained,” says Lucas. “How many people, outside of your followers,” asked Lucas of a reporter, “even know who JKW is?”

“This is a benign tumor — it doesn’t show up on the X-rays.”

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