Uncle Sam Provides Syria's Rebels Some Southern Comfort

By Michael Weiss

I’ve written in this space before that the Western efforts to consolidate, arm, and train Syrian rebels have had the greatest impact in the south of the country. There is now mounting new evidence to suggest that these efforts have modestly increased in the last few weeks, though not with the goal of defeating or even debilitating the Assad regime militarily (we can’t have that now, can we?). Rather, the idea is to apply “pressure” on Damascus during the second round of Geneva II negotiations, which began this week, and which the apparently non-pressured Syrian reconciliation minister has already classified as a “failure” waiting to happen.

An ongoing military operation, known evocatively as the Battle of Geneva Houran, has yielded a series of tactical rebel victories in the last fortnight as U.S.-financed and Saudi-purchased weapons have begun pouring across the Jordanian-Syrian border. Based on sources involved in the battle, the most that can be expected from it is a secure buffer zone that stretches from Deraa to Quneitra to parts of the southern Damascus countryside – a zone in which not only the regime’s military presence is minimized, but jihadist and Al-Qaeda elements are deterred. What’s more, three or four rebel commanders behind this operation are currently now in Switzerland.

Many of the details of this reinvigorated push for the south are already in the public domain. Gulf states have spent more than $1 billion since the summer buying up weapons in Europe for delivery to reconstituted brigades of the Free Syrian Army. The Saudi government has been in charge of this effort, with the money moving through an account controlled by Saudi intelligence and a “very senior official,” as The National reported on February 5. Lately the United States has also decided to inject more cash into arms procurement, owing to recent Congressional approval for this program, which was reported by Reuters in late January. Indeed, within two days of receiving the American subsidy, which may be as high as $31.5 million, rebels launched Geneva Houran, and sources in Deraa and Rif Dimashq told The National that they now have funding to last for nine months to pay a monthly salary of $50 to some 70,000 fighters.

A statement put out on February 1 by the Houran Joint Military Operations Command, which is receiving the arms and waging Geneva Houran, claimed that FSA fighters from “operations rooms in Deraa, Damasus, and Quneitra” were now incorporated into this larger hierarchical structure. Sources in Washington have confirmed that this is indeed the case.

The Command’s achievements after the first few days of Geneva Houran have been moderately impressive. Rebels took the Ataman checkpoint in Deraa and destroyed the “Electricity Company” checkpoint. They also destroyed plenty of Syrian army tanks, including those belonging to the 12th Brigade in the Lajat area of Deraa; set fire to the ammunitions depot of the 5th Division; and destroyed the radar antenna of the Air Force headquarters in Tal Karouf.

A document shared with me shows 58 brigades now working under the Command, divided by dozens into six subsections of “operations rooms,” all based on geography or “sector.” Feras, a Syrian rebel source based in Deraa and intimately acquainted with Geneva Houran, told me that these brigades are all “independent” and unmoored to the Supreme Military Council of the Free Syrian Army, the official U.S.-backed rebel organization which has all but disintegrated over the past several months. “The weapons all come from the former Soviet states such as Ukraine. They’re being run into Syria with the help of the CIA,” Feras said. “And they are definitely Saudi-purchased.” 

So what kind of weapons are moving in?

“Only light arms, as before,” Feras said. “AK-47s and Red Arrow anti-tank missiles. These shipments are still not enough to make a huge amount of difference – for major battlefield gains, the rebels still rely on hardware confiscated from regime warehouses.” (This fact seems to be ignored by Assad’s representatives who have made a principal talking point at the Geneva II conference the end for all Gulf state support for “terrorists” which have had better luck cannibalizing the regime’s own stocks.)

Feras added that although the Islamic Front, the biggest consortium of mainly-Salafist rebels, has a heavy presence in southern Syria but a rocky relationship with less Islamist FSA brigades in the north, so far relations between the Front and the Houran Joint Military Operations Command have remained “good.” This is because the FSA “is a lot stronger in the south than in the north and there is not much of a risk of the Front’s strong-arming the FSA.” Most Islamic Front fighters in Quneitra are still thought to be reliant on their command centers in Ghouta, Damascus for arms resupplies in the south.

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Michael Weiss is a NOW columnist and a fellow at the Institute of Modern Russia. He tweets @michaeldweiss.

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