Last week, news emerged that 51 officers at the US State Department signed an internal memo urging a more muscular approach in Syria. Without action, the diplomats warned, the regime of Bashar Al Assad will have no reason to abide by the cessation of hostilities or negotiate in good faith. And to stem the appeal of extremists, the US should recognise that Mr Al Assad is responsible for the vast majority of the hundreds of thousands of victims in this conflict.
The call comes amid a desperate situation for the Free Syrian Army’s Southern Front in Deraa, arguably the only place where the US policy deserves true praise. The one-eyed policy of focusing on extremists and neglecting the regime is quickly eroding what was a successful effort. Whether the rebel coalition will overcome the brewing crisis there will hinge on whether the diplomats’ advice will be heard.
As a viable fighting force consisting of mainly nationalist rebels concentrated in one region, the Southern Front is often cited as the most successful model for the opposition. Unlike in the more-chaotic north, jihadists in the south have been checked by powerful forces capable of combining force and governance – such as the Southern Front.
Recently, the rebel coalition has been facing four-way pressure that could lead to its demise.
The rebels are under pressure from the US-led Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman to focus on fighting ISIL in Deraa. As The National’s Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh reported last week, the MOC suspended a shipment of arms and payments scheduled for the rebels the previous week. Delivery of arms and money will be contingent on the rebels’ military delivery against ISIL.
The arms-twisting policy comes amid enormous popular pressure and criticism levied against the forces of the Southern Front. Over the weekend, the opposition circulated documents signed by 50 highly influential members of the opposition – including military commanders, activists and religious clerics – which urges the Southern Front to stop sitting idly by while the rest of Syria is being pounded by the regime and its backers.
Such criticism emanates from the perception that the Southern Front is a puppet of foreign countries. The state department’s memo rightly states that Syrians continue to see the Assad regime as their primary enemy, and the only way to rally everyone against this organisation is to put an end to its flagrant abuses.
There is almost a consensus inside Syria that rebels in the Southern Coalition are prohibited by its backers from advancing into sensitive regime bases near the capital. The rebel coalition’s credibility is already in question throughout Syria, and increased pressure on the rebels to focus even more on ISIL will undoubtedly weaken it. The MOC’s threat to withdraw support if the rebels do not advance against ISIL adds insult to injury.
By pressuring the rebel coalition in the south to shift attention to ISIL, the US is concurrently weakening the coalition and strengthening ISIL.
In the memo, the diplomats said that failure to stem Damascus’s abuses will bolster the ideological appeal of groups such as ISIL. This fact should be recognised especially as the Southern Front is now facing a more organised ISIL force in Deraa after three local forces merged under a coalition loyal to ISIL last month.
Besides the MOC, opposition activists and ISIL, local families are also asking armed groups to sign truces with the Russians. Such demands might not be critical for now, but it adds to the pressure and shows that the relevance of the Southern Front is increasingly questioned by both hawkish opposition and ordinary people.
The precarious situation of the Southern Front is real. If it opts to please its foreign backers by focusing on ISIL and neglecting the call by influential civil, military and religious activists, its position will be weakened in the eyes of ordinary people.
This will also strengthen ISIL, which, as I said in these pages last week, is seeking to expand in southern Syria by relying on loyalists from the area, many of whom come from prominent local tribes.
The anti-ISIL policy in Deraa is clearly misguided. It is consistent with the broader policy to stem ISIL, often by relying on forces perceived suspiciously by locals.
In the south, there are no such forces on which the US-led coalition can rely to fight ISIL, unless it wants to work with Mr Al Assad.
That leaves the US with one good option – to listen to the sage advice of the 51 diplomats.
Hassan Hassan is a resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy and co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
On Twitter: @hxhassan