‘Targets’ achieved in curbing aircraft use; group’s advance across southern Syria has led to major government retreats
A spokesperson for the Southern Front group told Middle East Eye that losing the Al-Thalaa airbase in Sweida to Syrian government forces last week is not a defeat for the opposition group
“At the end of the day, our main target has been achieved, which was to stop the aircraft and stop aircraft activity,” said Major Essam al-Rayes, the group's spokesperson. “Now there is no artillery and there are no aircraft used by this airbase.”
Though the Southern Front seized control of much of the airbase on Thursday, it was reported by the Syrian Observatory on Human Rights that on Friday it had returned to government hands.
“There is a target to control the whole airbase, but that will depend upon the timing and the right time to attack and to get inside the airport again,” added Reyes.
Reyes, currently in Amman, Jordan but originally from Damascus, told MEE that the group had no plans at the moment to attempt to make serious inroads into Sweida province - Syria's southernmost governate and the only one that has a Druze majority - or to “get inside villages or cities”.
“This airport was stopping our operations in Deraa, as it gives the regime air cover,” he said. “The best way is to freeze the activity in this airbase so we can continue our operations.”
He added that there had been efforts made to draw support from Sweida's Druze community, who have so far been broadly divided over the now long-running Syrian civil war.
Attempts to draw Druze recruits by the Syrian government had led to some entering the ranks of pro-government militias, but had also led to high levels of resistance, with many reportedly fleeing recruitment camps.
The Southern Front’s capture of the 52rd Brigade base in Deraa on Tuesday has been seen as major victory for opposition forces in the south of the country and marked the fall of the last government-controlled area in the east of the province.
A 'moderate' group
The Southern Front, a coalition of at 49 secular and so-called “moderate” religious rebel groups, was established in February 2014 and is nominally led by Bashar al-Zoubi, a defector from the Syrian government army, and leader of the Yarmouk Brigade faction.
In their founding statement, Southern Front explicitly proclaimed that there was “no room for sectarianism and extremism in our society, and they will find no room in Syria’s future”, and they have called for intervention to establish a no-fly zone.
Some commentators greeted the group's creation with suspicion, with analyst Aron Lund noting their founding statement's use of “moderate” and emphasis on plurality as the kind of buzzwords that would enable them to unlock funds from Western and regional allies.
“Even if everything said in the statement were true (the 30,000 fighters, the long list of groups involved, and the lofty goals declared), the Southern Front would still fall far short of a functioning alliance,” wrote Lund on the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace “Syria in Crisis” blog.
“Rather than an initiative from the rebels themselves, word is that it was foreign officials that called on rebel commanders to sign a statement declaring their opposition to extremism, saying it was a precondition for getting more guns and money. Since beggars can’t be choosers, the commanders then collectively shrugged their shoulders and signed - but not so much to declare a new alliance as to help U.S. officials tick all the right boxes in their reports back home, hoping that this would unlock another crate of guns.”
In addition, despite the Southern Front's purported secularism, they have fought alongside more religious groups such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, which both have called for the establishment of an Islamic state in Syria.
However, unlike other opposition groups in Syria - such as the Jaish al-Fateh coalition currently in control of northern Idlib province - the Southern Front has publicly ruled out collaboration with the al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda's-affiliate in Syria.
“We are not working with them, and they are not allowed to work with us,” said Reyes, citing al-Nusra's al-Qaeda links.
In a statement on Thursday, the Southern Front also condemned the killing of 20 Druze in Idlib province by al-Nusra.
Reyes also pointed out that the Southern Front, along with Jaish al-Islam, had begun fighting with the Islamic State in the eastern Qalamoun region, as IS were “preparing to move their sleeper cells they have inside our area and, as well, they are trying to enter Sweida's eastern area”. He noted that they had taken control of strategic positions and resources left by the retreating Syrian government.
“So we are fighting against them there and not the regime,” he said.
In spite of the setback at the al-Thalaa airport, Reyes told MEE that he was confident that opposition forces were on the ascendency and that the Syrian government was “running away”.
“We are aiming to start operations,” he said. “Now we are going to attack many different areas because everything now is open for us.
“This week, inshallah, there are lot of operations you will hear about.”