Syria's southern rebels seek backing in the shadow of Islamic State
While the world focuses on the fight against the Islamic State (IS) in northern and eastern Syria, a collection of some of the strongest opposition factions in the Southern Front have unified to secure a safe haven for civilians and offer a long-term plan for the war-torn country.
The move comes as rebel groups attempt to drive Syrian government forces and foreign militias out of the southern city of Deraa and its provinces, where civilians have been under the continuous threat of government bombings since the onset of the conflict in 2011.
Deraa is the cradle of anti-government protests that sparked a fully fledged uprising against the country’s President Bashar al-Assad over three years ago. The city has since undergone leadership shifts and an ongoing outpouring of tens of thousands of refugees heading to neighbouring Jordan.
Today, a mixed bag of Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and Islamist groups have gained almost complete control of the agricultural city and its provinces. The final push is one the FSA’s newly formed “First Army” hopes to head up.
Unified on 1 January, the combined group - some 10,000 strong - is made up of the three most predominant FSA factions of southern Syria, which the West largely sees as the last hope for the moderate Syrian opposition.
Drawing leadership mainly from high-ranking military defectors, the First Army’s commanding leader Saber Safar told Middle East Eye in a recent interview that the formation is a “nationalist project” at its core.
The commander was in Amman in late January seeking to secure further international partnerships with operations based in neighbouring Jordan.
As Safar explained, the group’s values leave little room for ideological division. “We try to avoid all labels, be they religious or tribal,” the 47-year-old commander said.
The opposition in southern Syria is a complex web of rebel groups spanning a wide range of ideologies. Hard-line groups like al-Qaeda's Nusra Front rub shoulders with the powerful Islamist group, Jaysh al-Islam and a wide net of Western-vetted moderate FSA rebel factions.
“The basic ideology [of the First Army] is to forget your personal agenda because we do not belong to any groups,” the soft-spoken rebel fighter said, sporting a woollen overcoat with an FSA flag shining on its collar.
“This is one of our main interests: the First Army should belong to the future government, and the people.”
Militant groups like the al-Qaeda wing haven’t posed a threat to the First Army’s goals in Deraa thus far, the commander said. The formation of the rebel force came with little objection from the local branch of the Islamist fighting group, who, unlike IS and northern factions of Nusra, are mostly Syrians from the south, and worthy companions in battle.
Safar is no stranger to the rocky and diverse battlefield of southern Syria.
He returned to his hometown of Deraa in 2012, after defecting from his position as a general in the Syrian army when violence in the restive city spiralled out of control. Since then, he’s been leading the Western-backed FSA rebel faction dubbed “Hamza Division”.
The prominent southern fighting force has received military and logistical support over the years from Arab and Western nations opposed to Assad, including US-made TOW anti-tank missiles.
But interest in the front is now running dry.
After joining the equally-endorsed 1st Artillery Brigade and Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front to form the First Army, the Hamza Division is pressing for more military support from the West.
Groups like the First Army proved their capabilities with significant gains in the Deraa area late last year, along with recent pushes toward the Damascus suburbs.
As Western powers express doubt about the abilities of wilted moderate rebels in the north, Southern Front brigades have struggled to show their own strength.
A grainy video broadcast on rebels’ social media channels earlier in February had First Army fighters shooting off US-made anti-tank weapons during field operations. In another, southern rebel factions pledge themselves to upholding international human rights.
But the problem in winning Western powers’ complete attention may be less about what policymakers think of the Southern Front’s capacity and more about Washington’s war against IS.
Safar hoped that during his trip to Amman the First Army could establish connections with an umbrella support group they refer to as the “Friends of Syria”, which includes the United States and Saudi Arabia, among others.
The rebel leader said he had no desire to dictate the political arena of southern Syria. Instead, the group aimed to serve as a post-conflict protection force, one which could be dissolved, regulated and controlled by the civilians themselves.
In January, the Pentagon rolled out a detailed train and equip programme to help a pocket of Syrian rebel groups battle a growing IS threat in northern and eastern stretches of the country. The White House authorised the deployment of hundreds of military trainers and thousands of troops for a programme beginning this spring to prepare some 5,000 Syrian rebels for battle in training camps in Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey.
The US authorisation to prepare moderate rebels came nearly a year ago, but training initiatives have focused on IS-held areas. Washington has so far left southern rebels in the dark.
Oubai Shahbandar, a principal in the Mideast-based security consulting firm Dragoman Partners and a former Pentagon analyst, said more comprehensive support for southern rebels could play an important role in the fight against IS in the north.
“You have to prevent them (IS) from spreading, and the way to do that is to work with the south,” he said. “We should see [the Southern Front] as an opportunity for stability, even though there’s no Daesh presence there yet. The key is to prevent another Raqqa from happening.”
Shahbandar maintains close contact with Western-backed rebel groups across the country, including Safar and other leaders in the south.
“When you look at the announcement of the First Army, everyone is in a uniform, they all have a rank,” he said. “Now you have a medical unit, engineering unit, and artillery unit - it’s an effort to prove that this is not a war made up of farmers, pharmacists and teachers.”
Meanwhile, the rebels' battle with Assad is heating up.
Reports emerged earlier in February of a Syrian military offensive led by Lebanese group Hezbollah, an ally of Assad's Shiite-derived Alawite minority, against FSA rebels and Nusra fighters which spanned the southern outskirts of Damascus, Deraa, and the battered southwestern city of Quneitra.
According to the rebel leader, FSA factions have seen an increased Hezbollah presence and other foreign backers alongside Syrian military personnel in recent months.
While the Lebanese Shiite group and the Syrian government announced the recapture of the Damascus countryside and Quneitra in early February, rebel fighters have taken to social media claiming control of both areas.
In comparison to the support his fighters have seen given by Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah forces to the Syrian government, Safar said the lack of military aid for the southern rebels has become evident on the battlefield, leaving the troops facing heightened challenges.
“We know that Russia and Iran have sent fighters [to Syria] and Russia is protecting the regime in the international arena with the veto,” he said. “We’ve seen all Friends of Syria helping with humanitarian support, but we hope they can also help fulfil our [military] goals.”
Syria’s moderate opposition forces have clearly expressed that their primary adversary is the Assad government, whose brutality, they allege, trumps the actions of IS. To achieve the goals that both the rebels and Western powers are eyeing, Shahbandar said Washington’s train-and-equip programme must cast a net large enough to capture not only IS, but also Assad.
“The Southern Front needs to become a real priority ... to also support moderate rebels fighting the Assad regime,” he said. “The Assad regime’s atrocities and those of Daesh are not mutually exclusive.”
With reports detailing the existence of an Amman-based operation room last November consisting of Western and Arab countries aligned with the rebels, the potential for greater international support for the southern rebels remains open.
Operations similar to that which the First Army hoped to receive in January are carried out through the portal, which serves as a logistical support unit, as well as a roadway for approved fighters to pass through the Jordanian border.
But Safar and his colleagues returned to Syria empty-handed, without the official meetings they hoped to secure, sources close to the operation told MEE. No concrete plans were announced to return to Jordan for a second attempt.
For now, the First Army will keep relying on its own strength to defend the 80 percent of the territory that the FSA has so far seized in Deraa and its provinces, waiting for another international spotlight for the Southern Front within an ever-deepening civil war.
“We are the protection body for the civilians, there to remove the injustice of the regime, and to provide a way for the civil work to happen,” Safar said. “But we don’t want to replace it - our work is to militarily provide for the civil institution.”