Why Syria's Southern Front Should Give the West Hope
The "south" in Syria's insurgency matrix, consists of Rif Dimashq (the areas surrounding the capital and the capital itself) and Deraa. There are half a dozen or so really strong brigades operating here, most of them part of the Free Syrian Army or linked to the Supreme Military Command. Jordan's General Intelligence Directorate plays an increasingly vital role in directing aid and weapons to select rebel brigades and battalions. This front, in stark contrast with northern Syria, has seen moderate, Western- and Arab-backed rebel formations performing exceptionally well not only against the regime but also in competition with Salafist-jihadist elements, including Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the two wings of al-Qaeda's Syria franchise. The real problem facing the southern front is that Jordan, which is a relative newcomer to the anti-Assad cause, has its own ideas of which rebels to support, and these often conflict with the preferred clients of the United States and Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, recent progress not only underscores the ability of external actors to influence the Syrian war even at this late stage, but it also points the way for how state actors might still try to salvage the rebellion in the radicalized northern and eastern fronts.
A big rebel offensive began in Rif Dimashq in late July in spite of the regime's constant, heavy bombardment of rebel-infiltrated suburbs. Here, FSA-aligned units have been harder to dispel than elsewhere in Syria, even with tanks, gunships, artillery shells, and chemical weapons. Rebels spent the summer carving inroads into Jobar, a strategically significant district from which they've pushed further and further toward central Damascus, seizing or besieging along the way major regime installations such as the Abbassiyeen garages, an electrical facility, a tank park, and a military school. Jobar belongs to the opposition. The neighborhoods of Qaboun, Barzeh, Salhiya, and Bab Touma are all contested, as are Damascus International Airport and Mezze military airports, major transport hubs for Iranian and Russian resupplies into Syria.
As Elizabeth O'Bagy, a senior analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, has shown, Liwa al-Islam, one of the biggest and best-equipped brigades in Damascus, has used confiscated anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down at least one Syrian Air Force helicopter and possibly other aircraft. Not only was this group responsible for the spectacular assassination of Assad's crisis management cell last July, but it's now issued a warning to the regime that any aircraft flying over East Ghouta will be shot down. Not quite a no-fly zone, but close. Air traffic over Damascus has diminished, according to local activists.
Also of note is the announced formation of Jabhat Fatah al-‘Asima, or the "Front to Open the Capital," which consists of 23 rebel factions, the two most important of which are the Farouq al-Sham Battalion and the "Sufi-leaning" Habib Moustafa Brigade. Like Liwa al-Islam, both are members of the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Syria, a more mainstream Islamist consortium of rebel formations that itself aligns with the Supreme Military Command.
So much for Rif Dimashq.
In Deraa, conditions are equally propitious for FSA-aligned forces. As best I can piece together from various sources, east of the M5 highway that connects Damascus to Jordan, the Free Syrian Army control around almost all the terrain, which is geographically impressive but strategically unimportant. West of the M5, the regime still lords over perhaps 60-70 percent of Deraa, but it is here where the FSA appears to be squeezing Assad's men tighter and tighter each week.
Consignments of Saudi-bought Croatian anti-tank and anti-infantry weapons, which were run into southern Syria beginning in January 2013, have helped, as I reported here several months ago. While some of these munitions did indeed wind up in the hands of Jabhat al-Nusra fighters, the majority nevertheless remained in the possession of those for whom it was intended. These include the Fajr al-Islam Brigade, the Omari Brigade and the Yarmouk Brigade.
Bashar al-Zoubi, also known as Abu Fadi, is a wealthy businessman who made his fortune in the tourism industry and hails from a clan in Syria that numbers as many as 160,000. (The al-Zoubis are, in fact, transnational, with some residing in Syria and others residing in Jordan, which makes them particularly well-placed as interlocutors between Amman and the opposition in Deraa and Damascus. In a sense, they strongly resemble the Jarba clan, which has retained prominence in both Syria and Saudi Arabia, and whose most recognizable member is the current, Saudi-backed head of the Syrian National Coalition, Ahmad Jarba.)
Abu Fadi told me in a Skype interview that he's got 4-5,000 men under his direct command in the al-Horan region. In total, 30-40,000 troops subscribe to the SMC, albeit without anything like a top-down command-and-control structure. The SMC is effectively a political and coordination apparatus.
I asked Abu Fadi why the south was relatively free of al-Qaeda in comparison with the north. "The only reason folks starting fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra," he said, "was the lack of any real support to the FSA, weapons and ammunition being delivered to us." Mostly, the FSA has been successful from Damascus to Deraa because of its integration with local tribes and communities. The bulk of its materiel has been confiscated from the regime. Were any new weapons coming in now? Some, he acknowledged, but still mainly light arms, not anything of the caliber or range to further tilt the balance of power.
This is the standard FSA line given to journalists so as to avoid compromising their Saudi and Jordanian patronage, although the extent to which it is a willful fudging of the facts really depends on who's doing the talking.
Nevertheless, a source close to the SMC informed me that when Idris met recently with Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal, Abu Fadi, and Gen. Ziad al-Fahad, his superior commander of the southern front, were both in attendance.
Fahad, an Amman-based general and the former head of the Damascus Military Council, is a short, stocky man, less George Costanza and more Robert Hughes. Whatever the Arabic is for "built like a brick shit house," the metaphor applies to him. "From the beginning, the FSA has been more organized in the south, in Damascus and Deraa, and this is the case even though the regime's strongest forces are based here, the Republican Guard, the Fourth Division and the security services," Fahad told me.
"Hardship and necessity are the mother of invention; isn't that the saying? It's because of the hardships we've faced from the beginning that we were better able to organize. The only reason people ever started fighting for extremist groups was because they had weapons and means. Well, we had weapons and means in the south - we raided regime caches effectively. This is why the extremists here are not as strong."
Fahad conceded that cultural differences between the north and the south contributed to the moderates' ability to carve out more territory in the latter area. He said that when he was in the Syrian Military Academy in 2010, he used to tour the northern territories and army schools quite often. "The illiteracy rate was 39 percent of the population. The culture there is more receptive to this ideology," he admitted. "But in Rif Dimashq and Deraa, people tend to be more educated and more open-minded."
Have any al-Nusra militants defected to the FSA? Fahad admitted that this has yet to take place at the brigade or company level, but individual fighters, particularly in East Ghouta, have indeed left Nusra and enlisted in more mainstream rebel formations - some going to Liwa al-Islam, others to other brigades. Al-Nusra, Fahad said, considers Liwa al-Islam a major competitor and enemy in the rebellion.
I asked what made the eastern parts of the capital a locus for this extremist-to-moderate transition. Fahad said that, quite apart from the battlefield prowess of units there, east Damascus was also where a lot of local manufacturing of weapons was taking place. "The suburbs of Douma, Harasta, and Arbin have skilled workers who make 125-millimeter guns, sniper rifles, IEDs. They've also replicated other weapons such RPG-29s, B-10s [recoilless rifles] and BKC [heavy machine guns]."
Interestingly, Fahad also claimed that a major rationale for the uptick in do-it-yourself weapons manufacturing in Damascus was a grim recognition by FSA units that if "extremists get all the advanced weapons, [the FSA] will themselves become victims." Self-preservation now has an intramural motive within the opposition.
"I was myself present in East Ghouta last July," Fahad said. "Al-Nusra there did not exceed maybe 20 fighters. Today they are around 150, not a huge number, but still more than before. The excuse that the West does not support the rebels for fear of extremism is accomplishing the opposite. The extremists multiply because of lack of support."
But even without that support, or with not much of it anyway, the extremists suffer from a fatal affliction: they're extremists.
It's usually difficult to get high-level FSA commanders to talk openly about the ideological differences, and indeed physical confrontations, that are beginning to define FSA-al-Qaeda relations in Syria. Fahad was more forthcoming than most and offered an example of what analysts are already beginning to observe as percolations of sahwa, or an Anbar-style "Awakening" to expel or marginalize extremists. Popular demonstrations against the Islamic State, many of which have been violently suppressed, have been ongoing for weeks. Yesterday, al-Qaeda blew up the headquarters of the widely-respected FSA-linked Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade in Raqqa, killing its commander. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, jihadists in that same province almost certainly detained and may have murdered Father Paolo Dall'Oglio, a Jesuit priest and Christian hero of the revolution. Few Syrians I've spoken to lately believe that al-Qaeda-run bakeries, much less the distribution of Teletubbies or the hosting of musical chairs during Ramadan, will keep the jihadists in good odor in the long term.
I asked Fahad for specific instances of FSA-on-al-Qaeda clashes. He recounted the following. "Three months ago, there was an operation in Rif Dimashq with 13 battalions involved. The battle was called ‘The Criterion That Separates Good from Evil.' In the course of the battle, one FSA soldier got hotheaded and cursed God. So the emir of Jabhat al-Nusra demanded that the people hand him over for trial for blasphemy. At that point, the local battalions kicked al-Nusra out of the area and told them that their services were no longer required. They were fighting Bashar al-Assad because of exactly this kind of attitude. They are moderate. If they [Nusra] are going to be extremist, their services are not wanted."
According to one opposition activist in the south, stories like these are common now if still largely unknown to Western audiences. Also, not all of them are captured on YouTube videos. He gave me two examples which he himself witnessed. The first was in the village of Museifra, in Deraa, where al-Nusra had tried to establish its own court system. Fighters from the movement raided the home of a local man whom they accused of working for the regime. They killed him, then cut out his heart and then proceeded to enjoy their evening meal "in celebration." The civilians of Museifra were so revolted by this that they surrounded the al-Nusra court with heavy weapons including anti-aircraft machine guns, and forced the jihadists out of the village.
The second example took place in Medineh where another local was ordered to appear before another al-Nusra-run sharia council. Instead, he drove his car by the relevant building and threw a bomb inside, killing five Nusra militants.
I asked Fahad the question I asked all Syrian rebels: Does he suspect regime collusion with jihadist elements now ostensibly fighting the regime? Again, this is a touchy subject for someone whose umbrella structure, the SMC, consists of battalions that partner all too easily with al-Qaeda in the north. After the fall of Minnagh airbase, for instance, Gen. Abdul Jabar al-Oqaidi, the commander of the Aleppo Military Council, and a senior officer in that province's largest FSA brigade, Liwa al-Tawhid, appeared side-by-side with an emir of the Islamic State, praising the jihadists' effort in helping to overtake a stubbornly defended loyalist stronghold.
"We know that Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State did not have any roots in Syria prior to the revolution," Fahad told me. "When the revolution broke out, we know that the regime released many of the al-Qaeda fighters who fought in Iraq and some of them were recruited at some point to work with the regime directly or indirectly so that they would given the impression to the West and internally that here is your alternative - here is what the revolution is made up of."
Ahmad Jarba, the newly "elected" (read: appointed) chairman of the Syrian National Coalition, crossed into Deraa last week to attend Eid al-Fitr prayers with rebels in Tel Shehab, which has lately become an internal refugee camp following Jordan's closure of its border with Syria to more civilians fleeing Assad's carnage. A day before, Jarba had headed a Coalition delegation meeting with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Joudeh, the first publicized event of its kind since the uprising began and very obviously a signal from Amman, which has hitherto maintained ties with Damascus even while hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees, that it was now committed to bringing about a post-Assad order. Jarba later told CNN Arabic that he intended to establish a Syrian National Army that would bind the northern and southern fronts under a unified command and further isolate extremist fighters from the mainstream anti-regime cause. Unsurprisingly, the plan was ridiculed by al-Nusra, the Islamic State and Ahrar al-Sham, all of which stand to lose if such an undertaking ever were to succeed. But it simply not plausible that Jarba would have mentioned this initiative unless it had been discussed and licensed at the highest level by Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
According to one source, King Abdullah's General Intelligence Directorate has been using a carrot-and-stick approach for enhancing the FSA in the south. First it runs Saudi-bought weapons, then it stops. Then it runs more, depending on the latest national security requirements, such as creating more and more internal Syrian space to host unwanted refugees. Still another motive behind this manic-depressive support system is the desire to coordinate the international "military track" with the "political track" on the conflict, i.e. ensure battlefield gains are sufficient to strengthen the "Friends of Syria" nations' diplomatic efforts with Russia, Iran and the regime. The CIA works cheek-by-jowl with the GID in this respect.
Jordan has done one unassailably positive thing for the broader rebellion. Over the past six months, it has maintained a U.S.-run military academy which has trained vetted Syrian rebels. So far, approximately 1,000 rebels have been given courses in tactics and weaponry, and although it's hard to find any rebel who's gone through this regimen to talk on the record, I did find an activist, whom I'll call "Ahmad," whose relative graduated from the program.
Ahmad told me that his relative was shown how to fire 14-millimeter guns, how to outfit his rifle with optical scopes, even how to "sit" or "take breaths" when firing. "In the field, fighters lack ammunition, which isn't just a problem for battling the regime but also for target practice. My [relative] hit his targets maybe 10 percent of the time before receiving training in Jordan. Now his hit-rate is more like 50 percent. Having unlimited ammo to work with is essential."
Hearts and minds and Gulf financiers.
In a recent article for Foreign Policy, Thomas Pierret, a scholar of contemporary Islam and the Middle East at the University of Edinburgh, argued that not only were Saudi arms reaching Syrian moderate forces but that the end game in what promises to be a long and bloody civil war does not bode well for al-Qaeda. Apart from everything else, Syria's Bin Ladenists are suffering from a very real, and very unresolved, identity crisis, one which, in addition to the already discussion popular disaffection with the movement, will lead to greater atomization and internal defections as time goes by. Pierret noted the ongoing feud between Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the leader of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and Abu Muhammed al-Julani, the founder of al-Nusra, is based not only in the former's arrogation to himself of supreme command over the al-Qaeda franchise in Syria, but also his advocacy of transnational jihadism. Baghdadi wants to own the world, Julani can make due with owning Syria.
According to Pierret, with whom I spoke following the publication of his essay, the extremists seem more interested in "bread-making" than in winning the war. Raqqa, he said, is the "backstage" of the conflict, no longer a major front, and, as already discussed, not exactly a secure foothold for foreign or homegrown takfiri types. "Interestingly, the Islamic State announced a few days ago that they would stop participating in the siege of the 17th division, one of the two last remaining loyalist bases in Raqqa," he said. "They want to focus on civil administration instead, in building an Islamic state, and so they've withdraw fighters from the most urgent battlefields."
Even where the Islamic State declares victory, it's often doing so on the shoulders of the FSA, as the recent sacking of the Minnagh airbase attests. For months, FSA-linked battalions laid siege to this installation, blowing up tanks with Saudi-purchased Chinese HJ-8 guided missiles. Then the Islamic State sent in suicide bombers, and the base was finally won. "The FSA does not have many people willing to blow themselves up in front of a tank." As for that scandalous photo op between Oqaidi and the Islamic State emir, Pierret said: "Even if they cooperate with each other, fundamentally, there are conflicting logics and agendas. The FSA is not interesting in getting rid of Christians or Alawites. And if they lead, then the other guys will have to adapt or confront the FSA and hopefully be defeated." Meanwhile, other major operations against other Syrian military bases, such Abu Zour in Idlib, Queras in Aleppo, are being led predominantly by FSA-linked groups.
Al-Qaeda's main competitor in the realm of rebel extremism is the Syrian Islamic Front, a consortium led by Ahrar al-Sham, a Salafist faction mostly centered in Idlib but which has partnered with the Islamic State in Raqqa, Hasakah in civil administration and, especially, the pumping and selling of oil. "They're torn between two strategies," Pierret said. "In Idlib, they're fighting the regime and part of the more mainstream effort; in the north-northeast, they're proud partners with al-Qaeda. But in Deraa, even by their own standards of intense self-advertisement, they're not that impressive. In Damascus, they have a branch in Zabadani, but that's pretty much everything."
Moreover, Ahrar al-Sham's benefactors are widely known and therefore extremely susceptible to interdiction. As Pierret wrote in his essay: "Saudi authorities, which have banned private fund-raising campaigns in favor of Syrian insurgents, have also actively opposed attempts by politicized Kuwaiti Salafists at using their relatively liberal homeland as a hub for Saudi donations to their favorite armed factions in Syria." Or, as one analyst put it to me recently, why can't the U.S. Treasury Department bring as much scrutiny to this non-state financial nexus as it did on all those al-Qaeda-linked "charities" after 9/11? A joint American-Saudi pressure campaign to eliminate fundraising mechanisms based in the Gulf that bypass the SMC infrastructure would directly weaken the prowess and manpower of extremist rebel groups operating in Syria.
Pierret has already pointed to one prior instance of Saudi persuasion working: the conversion of hardline Salafist cleric Adnan al-Ar'our, a dual Syrian-Saudi national who lives in the kingdom. Ar'our formerly ran his own mini-insurgency in Syria, controlling a faction loyal to himself. Many rebels I'd spoken with over the past year or so privately complained about to me about what havoc these militants were causing. But somewhere along the line, and for whatever reason, Ar'our was prevailed upon to give up his own war and publicly back an initiative to incorporate the main FSA blocs under a single, joint command. As ever, the struggle for Syria is about money more than strength of numbers or even ideology.
North, south, east, west, the rule is still the same: Control the cash, and you control the war.