The moment Syria’s southern rebels have been waiting for is drawing closer. With the newly announced “Southern Front” group uniting 49 of the south’s moderate factions, the opposition’s momentum in the battle for Damascus may have just gotten a significant boost.
Talk of a developing southern front dates back as early as last January, when Saudi-purchased Croatian weapons made their way into Deraa from Jordan, destined for Syria’s “moderate armed opposition.” After some of the arms ended up in the hands of Al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, the program was apparently put on hold. Now, renewed arms shipments and cash payments are flowing into Deraa, while joint operations rooms run out of Jordan give the rebels logistical, military, and intelligence support. It seems the southern front is, once again, back on track.
The difference this time around is two-fold, said Brookings Institution analyst Charles Lister. “There is a very concerted opposition offensive in Quneitra, and linking partially into western or northwestern Deraa,” he said. Unlike previous rebel offensives, the victories in Quneitra have been swift and continuous, albeit currently at a slower pace. Feras, a Syrian rebel living in Deraa, told NOW that opposition forces are steadily taking over Syrian army checkpoints in Deraa, heading further west to fight for the last three army checkpoints on the border with Quneitra.
The second turning point, Lister said, is the renewed regime attention on southern provinces. Barrel bombs, the crude weapon responsible for thousands of deaths in Aleppo, are now being dropped on populated areas in Deraa, and more air strikes and shells have been targeting Deraa and Quneitra. “This tends to suggest that the government was either aware something big would happen and would preempt it,” Lister said, “or that there’s a governmental reemphasis on repelling any areas of opposition support.”
Groups fighting in the southern provinces include the Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Free Syrian Army units, the Islamic Front – a large coalition of hard-line groups like Ahrar al-Sham – and the powerful Jabhat al-Nusra, totaling 64,000 fighters according to Feras. Despite disparities in ideology, relations among the various groups are surprisingly “much healthier” in the south than in other areas, said Lister. In Quneitra, Ahrar al-Sham, which advocates for an Islamic state in Syria and against a democratic system, collaborates openly with local FSA groups. Facilitating the smooth relations is the fact that the increasingly unpopular Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), towards which almost all opposition groups are hostile, has no presence in Syria’s south. Their absence may have also made Western and Gulf countries more willing to fund and arm rebel groups. Even Israel, in an effort to achieve an extremist-free border with Syria, has been boosting military support to what it perceives as more moderate factions.
But that conception may be misguided. “You often hear about the impression that moderates are dominant in the south. I don’t think they’re dominant,” Lister told NOW. “I think there are numerically more moderate rebel fighters, but for a very long time they’ve been so divided and locally-based.” He added that Western and Gulf states pouring cash and arms into Syria’s south are reluctant to accept just how positive the relationships are among the south’s moderate groups and extremist ones like Nusra or Ahrar al-Sham. “They think the moderates are far more independent and influential, and will therefore keep hold of the weapons they get,” said Lister. “My personal opinion is that that’s a bit short-sighted.”
The contested southern areas are strategic for both regime and opposition forces. For the rebels, they would be an ideal launching point for offensives on Damascus and its restive suburbs. At this point, the only open route to Damascus for opposition fighters is from the north; a united rebel front heading for the capital from the south could be a game-changer.
The primary goal for regime forces, then, is to protect the route to Damascus by nipping southern offensives in the bud. “There’s a fair amount for the government to be concerned about,” Lister said. Potential targets for opposition fighters could be the Damascus International Airport and the myriad security branch buildings in the Damascus suburbs.
Unlike the ongoing battle for the border area of Yabrud, it appears that Hezbollah has yet to get heavily involved in the southern fighting. “There is a Hezbollah presence in the town of Basra al-Sham and in the town of Deraa, in their security buildings,” Feras told NOW. “But their numbers aren’t big like in Qalamoun and East Ghouta.” He said he doesn’t expect an influx of Hezbollah fighters because of the high casualty numbers they are currently suffering in Yabrud. The Party of God’s presence in Eastern Ghouta, however, could prove challenging to Assad’s opponents as they attempt to take Damascus. Over 100 rebels were killed in an ambush outside of Eastern Ghouta on Wednesday, with many blaming Hezbollah.
Still, in the short- to medium-term, an expansion into the south is unlikely for the Party. “The suggestion I’ve seen is that Hezbollah is either unwilling or incapable to be involved in more than one major operation at a time in Syria,” Lister said.
With Hezbollah preoccupied, rebels cooperating, and weapons coming in, a push towards Damascus could be a big part of the rebels’ springtime plans. When it begins, it’s clear that outside supporters of the opposition, and the fighters themselves, will be looking for big gains in this offensive.