Rebels on Syria’s southern front ‘closer to the doorstep of Damascus’

A quiet increase in support has allowed rebels in southern Syria to make gains against the Al Assad regime, writes Suha Maayeh and Phil Sands.

Injured children rest in a field hospital, after what activists claim were two air strikes by forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar Al Assad, in rebel-held Douma, near Damascus, on September 14. Badra Mamet / Reuters
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AMMAN // Western and Arab military advisers based in Amman have quietly stepped up their role on Syria’s southern front, helping win recent advances for opposition factions.

After weeks of heavy fighting, rebel groups announced the seizure of 80 per cent of Qunietra province on Saturday, including areas along the border with Israel. The territory could prove to be a key link between opposition forces in the south and those fighting in and around the Syrian capital.

Qunietra borders the south-west side of rural Damascus and rebel commanders say they will now be able to work on establishing a reliable supply chain to besieged opposition units in districts on the western and southern sides of the capital, areas that have been largely cut off by regime troops since last summer.

Damascus remains the key prize in a battle for control over Syria that began with isolated, peaceful protests in the southern city of Deraa in March 2011.

The revolt against president Bashar Al Assad subsequently morphed into a civil war that has killed more than 190,000 people, produced the largest refugee crisis in six decades, and threatens the nation states established in the Middle East after the First World War.

Increased international support for opposition forces in southern Syria played a crucial part in the latest advances there, rebel commanders familiar with the operations said.

Rather than a dramatic increase in training or influx of weaponry — rebel fighters still complain they have not received the advanced anti-aircraft missiles and heavy weapons they want — the growing role of a secretive Military Operations Command (MOC) centre in Amman has been subtle but distinct, in the form of increasingly focused, hands-on planning and coordination for rebel operations.

Local command centres, which unite different moderate opposition factions fighting in specific geographical locations throughout southern Syria, have also been set up under the MOC’s auspices, allowing disparate groups under different rebels commanders to work together.

Personnel changes in key liaison posts connecting front line rebel forces to the MOC have also taken place, rebel commanders said.

The organisational changes put in place by the MOC have helped clear jams in the chain of command that rebels complained had hamstrung their attempts to effectively work with international backers, in particular when it came to intelligence-sharing and coordinating units for attacks on regime forces.

“Efforts to bring us together on the southern front have been inconsistent but all countries are moving in that direction. They now want us united and those efforts have been reflected on the outcome of recent battles, including the latest in Qunietra,” said a rebel field commander, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

“We are now more organised and this is reflected in our work and the implementation of our plans. There is a centralised command, which is giving better results, things are more under control,” he said.

These changes are not part of the latest US-led diplomatic push to build a coalition against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) after the beheading of two US journalists this month, rebels said. Instead, they have been gradually unfolding over the last three months.

This timing coincides with the rapid rise of Jabhat Al Nusra, an Al Qaeda affiliate, on the southern front.

In May, Al Nusra captured Colonel Ahmed Nehmeh, a prominent and controversial commander in the moderate western- and Arab-backed rebel coalition, embarrassing and alarming his international supporters.

Bolstered by an increase in fighters and funding, Al Nusra, once considered a bit-player in southern Syria, suddenly seemed poised to become its most influential actor.

That prospect appears to have galvanised the western and Arab states involved with the southern front into more concerted action designed to better organise moderate factions.

Rebel commanders said the improved command and coordination under the MOC had not solved all of their problems, but had helped to curb persistent factionalism within rebel groups.

There are also signs of a more coordinated effort between international supporters of the opposition, a rebel commander with links to the MOC said, with countries scaling back their independent supply channels to rebels and working more closely together.

“There is increased cooperation between the countries supporting Syria and increased cooperation among rebel factions. There are also promises of quality weapons, and of increased amounts or weaponry, although we have not seen deliveries yet,” said a second rebel field commander.

In addition, senior rebels described the MOC as redoubling its efforts to establish contact with various factions, excluding extremists such as Al Nusra, trying to forge closer ties with them and to persuade them to remain in the moderate camp.

While rebel fissures do remain, commanders also say they have drawn up agreements on how to share out weapons seized from regime forces — something they typically argue, or even fight, about.

Although not predicting any fast or easy victory over Mr Al Assad, who, backed by Iran and Russia, remains firmly in control of the capital and large areas of central and western Syria, rebel commanders said the balance of forces in the south was now tilting in their favour.

“We see this as a turning point in our operations in the south, we have control over most of the key areas and have destroyed two important regime army brigades,” said Colonel Nijem Abu Al Majd, a rebel commander in Deraa city.

The opposition Syrian National Coalition, which represents some of moderate, western- and Arab-backed factions, referred to the rebels’ progress as a “strategic victory” that will bring them “closer to the doorsteps of Damascus”.

Assad Al Zaubi, a former brigadier general with the Syrian air force, who now works as an independent military analyst in Amman, said Saturday’s victory in Qunietra could prove one of the most important rebel gains since the war began in the south.

“It helps the rebels in southern Syria create a direct line to the south-western countryside of Damascus. They now have made at least a partial connection to the outskirts of Damascus,” he said.

“The rebels now have more room for manoeuvre in southern Syria, while the regime’s presence and mobility has been seriously diminished,” he said.