Michael Weiss

Southern Comfort

As Geneva II falters, the United States is providing modest support to rebels in southern Syria

A groups of rebel soldiers gathered in a school in Deraa to receive instructions after capturing a strategic position on July 30, 2013

I’ve written in this space before that the Western efforts to consolidate, arm, and train Syrian rebels have had the greatest impact in the south of the country. There is now mounting new evidence to suggest that these efforts have modestly increased in the last few weeks, though not with the goal of defeating or even debilitating the Assad regime militarily (we can’t have that now, can we?). Rather, the idea is to apply “pressure” on Damascus during the second round of Geneva II negotiations, which began this week, and which the apparently non-pressured Syrian reconciliation minister has already classified as a “failure” waiting to happen.


An ongoing military operation, known evocatively as the Battle of Geneva Houran, has yielded a series of tactical rebel victories in the last fortnight as U.S.-financed and Saudi-purchased weapons have begun pouring across the Jordanian-Syrian border. Based on sources involved in the battle, the most that can be expected from it is a secure buffer zone that stretches from Deraa to Quneitra to parts of the southern Damascus countryside – a zone in which not only the regime’s military presence is minimized, but jihadist and Al-Qaeda elements are deterred. What’s more, three or four rebel commanders behind this operation are currently now in Switzerland.


Many of the details of this reinvigorated push for the south are already in the public domain. Gulf states have spent more than $1 billion since the summer buying up weapons in Europe for delivery to reconstituted brigades of the Free Syrian Army. The Saudi government has been in charge of this effort, with the money moving through an account controlled by Saudi intelligence and a “very senior official,” as The National reported on February 5. Lately the United States has also decided to inject more cash into arms procurement, owing to recent Congressional approval for this program, which was reported by Reuters in late January. Indeed, within two days of receiving the American subsidy, which may be as high as $31.5 million, rebels launched Geneva Houran, and sources in Deraa and Rif Dimashq told The National that they now have funding to last for nine months to pay a monthly salary of $50 to some 70,000 fighters.


A statement put out on February 1 by the Houran Joint Military Operations Command, which is receiving the arms and waging Geneva Houran, claimed that FSA fighters from “operations rooms in Deraa, Damasus, and Quneitra” were now incorporated into this larger hierarchical structure. Sources in Washington have confirmed that this is indeed the case.


The Command’s achievements after the first few days of Geneva Houran have been moderately impressive. Rebels took the Ataman checkpoint in Deraa and destroyed the “Electricity Company” checkpoint. They also destroyed plenty of Syrian army tanks, including those belonging to the 12th Brigade in the Lajat area of Deraa; set fire to the ammunitions depot of the 5th Division; and destroyed the radar antenna of the Air Force headquarters in Tal Karouf.


A document shared with me shows 58 brigades now working under the Command, divided by dozens into six subsections of “operations rooms,” all based on geography or “sector.” Feras, a Syrian rebel source based in Deraa and intimately acquainted with Geneva Houran, told me that these brigades are all “independent” and unmoored to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the official U.S.-backed rebel organization which has all but disintegrated over the past several months. “The weapons all come from the former Soviet states such as Ukraine. They’re being run into Syria with the help of the CIA,” Feras said. “And they are definitely Saudi-purchased.” 


So what kind of weapons are moving in?


“Only light arms, as before,” Feras said. “AK-47s and Red Arrow anti-tank missiles. These shipments are still not enough to make a huge amount of difference – for major battlefield gains, the rebels still rely on hardware confiscated from regime warehouses.” (This fact seems to be ignored by Assad’s representatives who have made a principal talking point at the Geneva II conference the end for all Gulf state support for “terrorists” which have had better luck cannibalizing the regime’s own stocks.)


Feras added that although the Islamic Front, the biggest consortium of mainly-Salafist rebels, has a heavy presence in southern Syria but a rocky relationship with less Islamist FSA brigades in the north, so far relations between the Front and the Houran Joint Military Operations Command have remained “good.” This is because the FSA “is a lot stronger in the south than in the north and there is not much of a risk of the Front’s strong-arming the FSA.” Most Islamic Front fighters in Quneitra are still thought to be reliant on their command centers in Ghouta, Damascus for arms resupplies in the south.


Even Jabhat al-Nusra’s presence close to the Jordanian and Israeli borders is less of a threat, according to Feras. The jihadists are fewer and they are more “pragmatic,” if only out of necessity, than their Al-Qaeda confreres in Idlib, Aleppo, and Raqqa.


Feras’s assessment of the relative strength of moderates in the south tracks with recent Israeli intelligence findings. According to Ehud Yaari, the Lafer International Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, Israel has also found that rebel groups stretching from the “Golan frontier up to Mount Druze in the east, and between the southern suburbs of Damascus and the city of Deraa” have been recognized by the Israeli military and intelligence services as “a potentially effective barrier to a takeover by Al-Qaeda disciples.”


More intriguingly, Yaari writes, Israel has also been quietly assuming a larger role in coordinating with these rebels: “What began as a purely humanitarian step – extending emergency medical aid to injured and sick Syrians from neighboring villages – has now reportedly expanded into a well-developed mechanism for providing a whole range of items, from medications to food, fuel, clothes, heaters and more. One should assume that the same understandings which allowed over 600 wounded Syrians to be evacuated for treated in Israeli hospitals – including a special military field hospital on the Golan – are facilitating other forms of assistance as well.” [Italics added.]


The Israel Defense Forces, while refraining from direct intervention on Syrian soil, has unfailingly waged tit-for-tat attacks against regime targets whenever Assadist forces fire artillery that lands on or near the Israeli-controlled side of the Golan border fence. This has provided the southern rebels with a de facto rear buffer, which at the very least creates a tactical complement to the not-so-secretive “operations room” run in Amman in which the CIA, Jordan’s General Intelligence Directorate, and Saudi Arabia’s General Intelligence Presidency coordinate Syrian rebel activity. But Yaari’s coy insinuation that Israel might now also be helping the rebels at the military level (intelligence coordination? gun-running?), motivated solely by a national security imperative to keep the Golan secure and Al-Qaeda-free, merits further scrutiny. Such a turn of events would not be so terribly surprising given what other regional ironies the Syria crisis has furnished.


The timing of these disclosures also coincides with another seemingly coordinated telegraphing by the Obama administration. Last week, U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsay Graham (both Republicans) told three separate reporters aboard a plane headed back to Washington from the Munich Security Conference that Secretary of State John Kerry believes that U.S. policy on Syria has failed. “[Kerry] acknowledged that the chemical weapons [plan] is being slow-rolled, the Russians continue to supply arms, we are at a point now where are going to have to change our strategy,” Graham told the Daily Beast’s Josh Rogin. “He openly talked about supporting [and] arming the rebels. He openly talked about forming a coalition against Al-Qaeda because it’s a direct threat.” State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki of course denied the substance of Kerry’s remarks, as did two Democratic senators who were privy to the same briefing and professed themselves absolutely shocked – shocked – that McCain and Graham gibbered to the press.


However, it hardly seems likely that the Republican interventionists were mistaken in their relay of Kerry’s comments or that their interviews with prominent journalists were really unexpected. For one thing, James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, has himself testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Intelligence Committee that the U.S.-Russian chemical disarmament deal, the implementation of which has recently slowed to a near-halt, only empowered Assad and that around 26,000 extremists were now active in Syria, many with the intention to eventually strike at the American homeland. Furthermore, McCain and Graham were the same two lawmakers who were personally briefed by President Obama in the lead-up to possible airstrikes on the regime back in August, following Assad’s deployment of chemical weapons in Ghouta. They were then essentially seconded to articulate to the U.S. media what the White House wanted the world to believe was its hawkish Syria policy – which policy in reality turned out to be the very dud deal with Vladimir Putin that has now plunked Kerry in the awkward circumstance of confessing his second thoughts to former senate colleagues. But one should not expect Kerry’s nervousness, assuming it was indeed intended for wider consumption, to lead to a genuine about-face in his boss’ fundamentally intransigent “strategy.” At best, what we’re now witnessing is a minor tactical shift.


As ever, the Obama administration views Syria’s rebels as handmaids for advancing an uninterrupted policy of negotiation and reconciliation with the Assad regime – a regime that cannot even allow humanitarian aid into Homs, or civilians out, without the commission of further grievous war crimes. The rebels’ new guns are meant only to again test the fantasy that Assad can be talked out of power. Need I even spell out the rest? If the rebels perform too well, if they steal too many sophisticated weapons from Syrian army caches, or if they ever demonstrate a credible threat of advancing on the “state institutions” which the White House has repeatedly said it wishes to see remain intact – the very military and intelligence services guilty of torturing, raping, and killing people on an industrial scale – then you can rest assured that these late-arriving and still-insufficient Kalashnikovs and Chinese anti-tank missiles will once again become rescinded luxuries.

Awaiting instructions. (AFP Photo/HO/Shaam News Network)

"These shipments are still not enough to make a huge amount of difference – for major battlefield gains, the rebels still rely on hardware confiscated from regime warehouses.”

  • sam from boston

    MIKE, u r a forkin loser, why dont u go pick up A weapon & go fight & also spend ur MAMA`S/DADDY`S money to fund these FORKIN ....., if not, so SHUT Z FORK UP........

    February 13, 2014

  • GOTC

    Michael, Would you please provide a good reason why the US should provide taxpayer funded assistance and US military expertise to people who who had no problem with suicide bombers blowing up US troops in Iraq?

    February 12, 2014

  • marcus.djxl

    GTOC: The Assad regime sponsored al Qaeda attacks against US troops in Iraq, not the Syrian opposition members. So you'd be helping those who are fighting those who helped kill Americans in Iraq.

    February 14, 2014

  • SpikerofGdansk

    GOTC you seem to think that if anyone fights against the US, they must be evil no matter why they are fighting. It's perfectly obvious why the US is spending piddling amounts of money pressuring Assad's regime to negotiate and why (rest assured) it won't give much more in the near future. (The other reason for giving at least something when the Assad regime refuses to make concessions is because the US would lose credibility with those among the rebels who see it as a friend: Obamam can hardly say "hey guys, sorry we gained you nothing at Geneva but you have to give up fighting Assad now because we need a new alliance with him against Al-Qaed and ISIS," and expect them to obey.) But I for one would be happy to see the Syrian rebels kick out the regime lock stock and barrel and any amount of "blowback" for the US and Saudi Arabia would only be a good thing, not a bad thing. Alas the evil parasites running both countries won't deliberately create a major threat to themselves - more's the pity.

    February 14, 2014

  • SpikerofGdansk

    What kind of person would ever consider firing on darling American troops? http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TYDEfobW43s

    February 14, 2014

  • GOTC

    I am well aware of the evil nature of the Assad regime. I lived in Zahle during the war. There are no good sides in the Syrian mess right now. The best thing for the US to do is stay out of it.

    February 14, 2014

  • GOTC

    Spiker wants the US to help the rebels because he/she thinks a possible blowback against the US would be a good thing. You are a twisted person.

    February 14, 2014

  • Syricide

    GOTC I will assume that you must be young and are obliviously ignorant of the last 65yrs of covert wars and insurrections incepted and organized by the US that has cost more than 8 million lives since WW2 (and thats a conservative estimate). The only twisted perception here is that of your shallow indignancy

    February 21, 2014