Loss of southern front town points to disarray in Syrian rebel ranks

Rebel commanders and fighters describe a litany of tactical mistakes, logistical confusion and destructive infighting that contributed to the loss of Sheikh Miskeen in Deraa province. One commander summed up the rebels' performance as a “major failure”.

Syrian pro-government forces celebrate on a street in Sheikh Miskeen after retaking the strategic town from rebel forces. Sheikh Miskeen lies at a vital crossroads between Damascus to the north and the government-controlled city of Sweida to the east. AFP
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AMMAN // The capture of Sheikh Miskeen by president Bashar Al Assad’s forces last month was their most significant victory in years on Syria’s southern front, but for the rebels, the manner of their defeat was more alarming than the loss itself.

Rebel commanders and fighters described a litany of tactical mistakes, logistical confusion and destructive infighting that contributed to the loss of the town in Deraa province. One commander summed up the performance of the rebel alliance as a “major failure”.

The inability of the rebels and their international backers to come up with an answer to Russian air power was a significant factor in the battle, and is likely to prove critical over the coming weeks and months, as the fight for Syria’s south continues.

Regime officials have said they intend to keep up their offensive until they regain control of border crossing points with Jordan. Rebels currently hold the frontier posts on the Syria-Jordan border, and expect Russian air strikes to target them soon.

Interviews with rebel commanders involved in the fight for Sheikh Miskeen have revealed they were comprehensively outmanoeuvred on the ground, in the air and in the diplomatic arena.

Efforts to keep Russian air power at bay were made solely through diplomatic channels. Jordan, which entered into an intelligence-sharing agreement with Russia in October, believed it had struck a deal whereby Moscow would not to target western-backed factions and would, instead, coordinate with Amman in hitting hardline Islamic factions.

In late December the regime began increasing its military activity in the south and it quickly became clear that the deal was not holding. Russian air strikes intensified throughout January, as the assault increasingly focused on Sheikh Miskeen.

As the fighting raged, rebels said their international backers in Amman’s Military Operations Command (MOC) repeatedly exhorted them to hold on to the town. The inner workings of the MOC remain highly secretive, but rebels familiar with its operations said it seemed to be in a state of disarray as regime forces advanced.

“The MOC was telling us how important it was for us to keep Sheikh Miskeen, they kept telling us ‘hold on, don’t give up’,” said a leading rebel commander, describing an increasingly desperate battle for the town.

Whoever controls Sheikh Miskeen controls the main highway and, therefore, controls a main path for weapons and troops in the southern region. The rebels had hoped to use the town as a means of choking off the regime units still holding on in Deraa, and to link up with rebels on the outskirts of Damascus. Now, rebel positions across the south will be more exposed to attack.

Russian air strikes were monitored in detail by the MOC and, when it became clear that they were turning the tide in the regime’s favour, Jordan’s top military officer was dispatched to Moscow.

Gen Mashal Mohammad Al Zabin, chairman of joint chiefs of staff, flew to Russia on January 27, the day after regime forces made a rapid advance in Sheikh Miskeen, seizing hold of 95 per cent of the town in a two-day blitz.

Jordan has been at pains to try to prevent extremist factions tied to ISIL from gaining ground in the south, and fears any weakening of moderate rebels will open space for more radical groups.

The campaign of air strikes has also displaced thousands of civilians, with 70,000 people on the move by early February, according to the United Nations. Jordan is already struggling to cope with an influx of refugees and is ill equipped to deal with more.

The content of the Russian-Jordanian talks has not been made public but the air strikes did not stop. By the time Gen Al Zabin returned to Amman on January 29, Sheikh Miskeen had fallen.

Weapons supplies were also a key factor working against the rebels. While munitions supplies from the MOC continued they did not always reach the rebel units most in need on the Sheikh Miskeen front lines. Many units received nothing, while others were fairly well supplied, according to accounts from several rebel commanders.

“Some groups got a lot of weapons, others didn’t, there was not an equal distribution,” said a rebel field commander. He said those who sold them instead of getting them to the front line had betrayed the rebel cause.

Another rebel commander blamed Washington, saying the US had blocked efforts by the MOC to dramatically increase the flow of weapons. “The Americans are letting us down, if they wanted to supply us with the right weapons on time, they could, nothing would be late,” he said. “US calculations on Syria seem to have changed.”

Rebels said they were not offered anti-aircraft missiles to counter the Russian attacks.

But more critical than the availability of weaponry was a renewed disorganisation in rebel ranks. Aided by MOC planners, rebels made strong advances in the south in 2014, largely because of joint operations rooms, which unified rebel efforts and enabled them to better manage their resources on the battlefield.

At Sheikh Miskeen that coordination network was never put in place, rebels said, and no well-researched plan for defending the town was ever drawn up. Instead of a unified operations room coordinating the fight, there were four different rebel command centres which did not work together. It remains unclear why a united, organised defence plan was not followed.

The result was chaos. Rebels described units being pulled off the line at critical moments, reinforcements failing to arrive on time and, in one case, more than 100 fighters being sent away in the midst of battle to attend a military training course behind the lines. This burgeoning disarray sapped the morale of the remaining fighters, undermined the confidence they had in their leaders, and sowed discord between factions who already mistrusted one another.

One senior rebel said units retreated too soon from the town because of a successful propaganda operation by the regime. A small regime force sneaked through rebel lines and hoisted a government flag, triggering the collapse of rebel lines that were, in fact, holding. “Rumours circulated that the regime had broken through, so some units pulled back,” he said.

Another commander complained that high-ranking rebels spent too much time in Amman, lobbying the MOC and “back-stabbing” other rebel units in a competition to get weapons and gain influence with countries bankrolling the MOC.

“All of those commanders should have been on the ground organising the defence. They should now be kicked out and replaced by their second-in-commands,” he said.

Rebel forces also became embroiled in an internecine fight just as the struggle for Sheikh Miskeen was reaching a decisive stage. Moderate groups clashed with Harakat Al Muthanna, a more radical faction involved in the kidnapping of Yaqoub Al Ammar, the opposition’s provisional governor for Deraa, weeks earlier.

Rebels said the MOC had supplied them with weapons to fight factions allied with ISIL but, with regime forces closing on Sheikh Miskeen, the rebels’ international backers had urged them to focus on the defence of the town.

Instead of focusing on Sheikh Miskeen however, some MOC-backed rebels pushed ahead with a raid on a Harakat Al Muthanna compound, accusing them of supporting ISIL. In response, when moderates tried to reinforce Sheikh Miskeen, Harakat Al Muthanna blocked their path.

In the wake of the defeat, morale in rebel ranks has been low. Nonetheless, the opposition to president Al Assad has vowed to keep on fighting

“The rebels are still there present, they are part of the map and the regime cannot end the resistance in Deraa,” said Muti Al Batin, a member of the opposition Syrian National Coalition from Deraa.

“The rebels are still capable of facing the regime, but they do need something to change the equation ... [they need] weapons that would enable them to face the regime’s air power,” he said.


* Phil Sands contributed to this story from Boston, USA