BEIRUT - The Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) that helps coordinate rebel operations in southern Syria has ordered Free Syrian Army-affiliated factions not to attack a strategically located town held by regime forces, according to a pro-rebel outlet.
7al.me cited sources as saying that the MOC summoned leaders in the Southern Front coalition for an emergency meeting Tuesday in which they were warned against launching an offensive to seize Sheikh Maskin, a town lies along a motorway that run northward from Daraa's provincial capital toward Damascus.
A local media activist explained to the outlet that rebels were offered their long delayed monthly salaries in exchange for not seeking to take back control of the town, which regime forces seized in late January 2016 following weeks of fierce battles.
Sheikh Maskin's location is considered militarily important, with a security source telling AFP that the town served as a "launching pad" for rebel operations in southern Syria and was one their "centers of gravity."
The same month that the town fell into government hands, reports emerged that the MOC ordered the Southern Front to halt its operations against the Syrian regime in the Daraa province in order to focus its fight on ISIS-affiliated groups in the region.
According to The National, the MOC suspended payment to Southern Front rebels in June 2016 until they made serious progress against Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed, which was formed the month before as a coalition of the ISIS-linked Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade and Islamic Muthanna Movement.
The Southern Front has failed to notch any significant military successes since the early summer of 2015, after which its major offensive on the provincial capital Daraa ground to a halt.
Southern Front under fire
7al.me's report comes amid growing criticism by opposition activists and rebel groups—especially Islamist ones—over the Southern Front coalition's seeming reluctance to battle regime forces in southern Syria.
This coming Friday, activists in the opposition-held Daraa province plan to hold a rally against Southern Front commanders to challenge their perceived inactivity.
Already, an official in the powerful Islamist Ahrar al-Sham organization issued a fiery warning to Free Syrian Army-affiliated rebels in southern Syria, saying they were culpable for the regime's recent advances into the besieged western Damascus suburb of Darayya.
In response, the Southern Front announced it will start a "series of battles" in the Daraa province, however it has taken no substantial military moves since issuing its vague declaration.
“We in the Southern Front are continuing our revolutionary and military actions at all levels,” insisted in the statement issued on July 13, 2016.
The coalition fired back at growing allegations that it was no longer pressuring regime forces in southern Syria, declaring, “We have not, and we will not [stop], until the liberation of the last inch of the land of our beloved Syria.”
“We announce in the meantime the [start] of the series of 'Houran Volcano' battles,” the statement said, in reference to the geographic region stretching through the Daraa province.
However, the Southern Front did not specify where it would launch its attacks, or even who it would fight. Factions in the coalition have been engaged in fighting with the ISIS-linked Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed in the Yarmouk basin near the Golan demarcation line between Syria and Israel.
The Southern Front’s statement blasted both the Syrian regime, calling it an “evildoer,” while also slamming ISIS and “the one who supported them,” an implicit reference to Jaysh Khalid Ibn al-Waleed, which was formed in May 2016 and includes the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade, a group with ties to ISIS that was recently blacklisted by the US.
Five groups signed onto the statement: The Division of Decisiveness and Gathering of Righteousness—both groups formed in April 2016 out of mergers of smaller FSA factions—as well as the First Corps, First Artillery Regiment and the lesser-known Assad Allah al-Ghalib Gathering.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language material.