Syria’s southern rebels draw up new game plan

Moderates in southern Syria move to shore up against attacks by Al Nusra and ISIL, and win the support of civilians.

Rebel fighters prepare to fire a machine gun towards forces of Syria's president Bashar Al Assad in Syria's northwestern Latakia province. Alaa Khweled/Reuters
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AMMAN // As Western-backed rebels in northern Syria were suffering a crushing defeat by Jabhat Al Nusra earlier this month, an angry commander on the country's southern front shouted at military advisers from the US, UK and Gulf states, telling them their tactics were badly failing.
The rebel leader, Abu Osama Al Jolani, was "furious" and "yelling", according to opposition accounts of the incident, which unfolded at the Military Operations Command (MOC) in Amman, a centre staffed by international advisers aiding rebels in southern Syria.
Mr Al Jolani, the 37-year-old head of the Syrian Revolutionaries' Front's (SRF) southern command, told personnel at MOC that limited and poorly coordinated supplies — including munitions and other essential equipment — to rebels in the north had allowed the Al Qaeda affiliate, Al Nusra, and the even more extreme ISIL group, to defeat moderates.
He warned that a similar scenario would play out in the south unless urgent steps were taken to bolster the standing of moderate factions in the face of rising extremism.
It was the SRF's northern group, headed by Mr Al Jolani's colleague Jamal Maarouf, that was effectively forced out of Idlib province by Al Nusra, in a fight that broke out in the village of Bara.
In the immediate aftermath of Al Nusra's advance in the north, Mr Al Jolani and Hamza Al Qanoini, commander of the First Brigade in Damascus, met with a dozen other rebels commanding factions in an alliance known as the Southern Front, and told them they must devise a plan to head off a northern-style take over by the Islamists.
The collective response of the Southern Front alliance was to draw up an as yet unpublished political programme, as first reported by Reuters on November 13.
Ahead of the announcement of the political programme, which calls for eventual civilian control of rebel groups in the south, a provincial council was formed in September that was independent from the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), the Istanbul-based political alliance recognised as the official opposition to president Bashar Al Assad by the West and the Gulf states.
"The Southern Front plan has nothing to do with the SNC or the chief of staff [the SNC's military wing], they do not represent the rebels, they are all owned by other countries now," said a field commander involved in operations in Syria's south.
Dogged by internal disputes and a reputation for ineffectiveness, the SNC has failed to gain much traction in organising and uniting dissipate opposition and rebel groups, despite the shared goal of toppling the authoritarian Al Assad family regime which has ruled Syria since the early 1970s.
The Southern Front's political plan, said to include guarantees for the rights of all Syria's sectarian and ethnic groups, is intended to have broad appeal among Syrian civilians and to undercut support for more extreme interpretations of Islam that has been spreading.
It also includes a more pragmatic effort to win the hearts and minds of civilians, by providing food and other humanitarian aid to them on a broader scale than has been so far.
In the south, Al Nusra and, elsewhere in the country, ISIL, have been winning some level of popular support by providing food and fuel to civilians who have not joined the millions that fled their homes. The country's three-year conflict has claimed some 200,000 lives and left millions of people displaced.
In comparison the moderate forces, officially represented by the SNC, are widely seen as having failed to deliver effective aid, legal systems or, in many cases, fighting forces in rebel-held territory.
"The political plan seeks to create a popular base, to gather the support of the citizens as well as the MOC," said a senior rebel whose group is among those that drew up and subscribed to the programme.
To get aid on that scale, the rebels say they will need supplies to come from the MOC. Some food baskets, stocked to supply a family for a month, have already been sent out by the MOC to six large rebel factions in the south.
Rebels declined to give details of any additional weapons transfers from the MOC. Factions in the south have sought advanced US-made missiles to destroy aircraft, but have not been given them, they said.
Militarily, efforts are also underway to unite often fragmented moderate rebel factions. Almost 40 small rebel groups agreed to join under the banner of the First Legion in the south, something the MOC has long been pushing for, rebels said.
At the same time, moderate rebels have sought to curtail the expanding influence of Al Nusra by entering into an often uneasy alliance with its forces, most recently getting it to agree to join a unified court that will dispense justice in rebel-held areas of southern Syria, and seek to resolve disputes between rebel factions.
In contrast to the north and east, where Syria shares frontiers with Turkey and Iraq, the southern border with Jordan has been relatively well policed, preventing the kind of influx of foreign extremists that have aided the rise of ISIL and Al Nusra.
That had made the southern front the best hope for the West and Gulf States, and the moderate rebel groups they are backing, to bring pressure to bare on Iranian reinforced, Russian supplied regime forces in and around the capital, Damascus.
Rebels have been making steady, if slow progress in the south, and on Thursday briefly entered Baath city, the last regime held area of Quinetra province.