Syria war: Southern rebels see US as key to success

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FSA fighters in Damascus (file photo)Image source, Reuters

Rebels in southern Syria are working to convince Washington to provide more decisive support as they continue to make small but steady gains against government forces.

While most of the world's attention and the Syrian government's forces have been focused on Kobane and Aleppo in northern Syria, moderate rebels south of Damascus have successfully taken territory and held it over the last three months, in the Deraa province, along the Jordanian border and along the Golan Heights.

The growing coalition of 58 US-backed rebel groups south of Damascus known as the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is inching closer to the capital but with restricted military supplies and only half-hearted political support from the White House, they admit their progress will be limited.

"For three years most factions in the opposition have been asking Washington 'what can you do for us?'" said one activist speaking by phone from the Middle East.

"We want to make Washington want to help us because of what we achieve on the ground," added the activist, who is close to the rebel groups.

In northern Syria, rebels are squeezed between President Assad's forces and Islamic State militants and are close to collapse.

There are growing warnings that the US is on the verge of losing the last remnants of influence it has on the ground in Syria.

Reluctant backing has led to a lack of trust by the moderate rebels, and the newly announced Pentagon programme to train and equip new rebel recruits only starts in the spring of 2015.

So the southern front is even more crucial for any short-term Western strategy in Syria, especially if it still envisages putting the squeeze on the government in Damascus.

Better organised

Much has been written over the last three years about the southern front, as the rebels repeatedly failed to advance in a sustainable manner.

Conversations with commanders and civilian activists, reached by phone and over Skype over the last few weeks, now paint a picture of a Southern Front that is better organised than in the past and more disciplined than other rebel groupings.

Conversations with US officials in Washington said this chimed with their assessment.

The southern rebels' current progress is helped by better, more focused co-ordination between their outside backers, and the Syrian government's manpower shortage as it battles rebels in northern Syria. With no Islamic State presence for now in the south, the rebels there have also been able to focus their energy solely on fighting Assad's forces.

The rebels in the Southern Front are watching negotiations for ceasefires around Aleppo warily. Any easing in the fighting there could be an opportunity for the government to re-direct its forces to the south.

Outside support

The rebels say they can count on 38,000 experienced fighters, most of them vetted by the CIA, though both the numbers and the vetting are hard to confirm.

No American official was willing to comment on the details of the Southern Front or the extent of the US support for them.

But the former ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, said that he would not rule those numbers out.

Image source, Reuters
Image caption,
The US is orchestrating a plan to train and arm moderate rebels

Two-year long mandatory military service in Syria and three years of rebellion also mean most men of fighting age have at least some experience on the battlefield.

External backing comes through the Military Operations Center in Jordan, a logistics and supply hub, run mainly by the US, with allies, including the UK, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Jordan keeps its role very quiet, and remains wary of too much progress by the rebels. There have been reports that Israel is tending to wounded rebel fighters.

Bashar el-Zoubi, head of the Yarmouk division and one of the key commanders in the south, would not be drawn into detailing who supplied weapons but said there was a steady stream and talked about recent deliveries.

Speaking over Skype from southern Syria, he also said rebels often seized government military hardware. But the rebels want a no-fly zone to protect civilians from barrel bombs and anti-aircraft missiles to target military aircraft.

He said the factions in southern Syria had learned from the mistakes of the Free Syrian Army in the north and avoided a centralised command.

He described the military co-ordination between the different groups as a moving command centre, with a unified leadership but no overall commander.

The fluid arrangement allows the rebels to remain nimble in their operations and is aided by tight-knit tribal ties, which helps resolve disputes.

Rights pledge

The region south of Damascus is dotted by military installations because of Syria's long-standing enmity with nearby Israel, which makes the rebels' advance on Damascus an arduous if not impossible task in the current circumstances.

But Mr Zoubi said the goal was two-fold: to forge a passage to the capital and encircle the military installations along the way, while encouraging soldiers to defect.

"We don't need to overrun the bases, we don't want to destroy the army, we don't want to repeat the mistakes of Iraq," he said.

The rebels say they consolidate their rule by working with local civilian councils. Earlier this year, all 58 units signed up to a document outlining the principles of the revolution that includes justice for all Syrians, and a document with 15 pledges from rebels on the battlefield to protect civilians and abide by international human rights laws.

With little access to southern Syria for journalists, it is hard to verify the claims made by the rebels about their pledge to abide by certain standards. Human rights organisations have accused rebels in the north of serious human rights abuses.

Christians in the town of Izraa have expressed fear for their lives because of the presence of the al-Qaeda affiliated group the Nusra Front, which recently gained control over two nearby towns.

Abu Majd el-Zoubi, a spokesman for the Southern Front, acknowledged that the Nusra Front operated in the region but insisted they were only 10% of the fighting force and that the rebels were all "100% Syrians".

"We are not making these pledges about human rights to please the West," he said. "We are the better alternative for Syria," he added.

Political template?

In the confusing landscape of rival Syrian opposition groups, the rebels in southern Syria insist they represent a template that can effectively challenge President Assad if they receive enough outside political and military support.

Image source, AP
Image caption,
Islamic State has emerged as a major threat to other rebel groups in Syria

They are planning to announce a transition framework for the day after the fall of the Assad government to demonstrate they also have the political acumen and vision to offer a local alternative for Syria's future, one that is not dependent on a discredited opposition in exile, according to the rebels.

The plan has yet to be made public but a copy was sent to the BBC.

But the rebels are acutely aware that Washington will not back an all-out advance on Damascus, not just out of fear of the "day after" but also because of wider strategic calculations.

Chief among these are the fight against Islamic State, which is the Obama administration's key priority, and the need to maintain calm with Iran as nuclear negotiations continue.

"We know the West sees us a way of keeping the pressure on Assad in Damascus," said Mr Zoubi. "The goal is to change the balance of power on the ground and end the war".