by: Jennifer Cafarella
Rebel forces in Southern Syria have mobilized for what they hope will be the final phase of a major campaign to force the regime to withdraw from Southern Syria. Should they succeed, they may achieve enough momentum to advance to Damascus and may force the Assad regime to contract from outlying areas, including southern, eastern, and northern Syria where the regime is also challenged. A successful operation by rebels in Southern Syria could therefore alter the stalemate of the Syrian war even though rebels across northern and southern Syria are not coordinated. Rebels in Southern Syria represent a strong potential partner for the U.S. not only to end the Syrian war, but also to limit the expansion of ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. The moderate rebel Southern Front coalition has played a leading role in Southern Syria since the summer of 2014, a distinction from other fronts on which moderate rebels play a minimal role. Islamists brigades have fought alongside them, however, and Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) has supported their effort, indicating that the influence of moderate rebels in Southern Syria is vulnerable. While their tactical cooperation may improve their chances of driving pro-regime forces from southern Dera’a province, it may also limit future opportunities for the U.S. to capitalize upon their success if moderate rebels are not empowered to remain in the lead through increased international support.
Syrian rebel forces in the moderate Southern Front Coalition declared “Battle of Southern Storm” in Dera’a Province on June 24, 2015. The objective of the Battle of Southern Storm appears to be to oust the regime from of Dera’a Province and to set conditions for an eventual assault on Damascus. After allowing one day for civilians to evacuate the city, rebels launched a “large scale” attack against pro-regime forces in Dera’a City on June 25. Rebels made initial advances, seizing the Dera'a National Hospital and a regime-held checkpoint near the Bassel al-Assad Stadium in northern Dera'a City, significant because Dera’a city has not been an active frontline over the past year. Regime forces responded with a major increase in aerial bombardment including over 60 barrel bombs in Dera’a City and its outskirts on June 25 alone. Clashes remain ongoing as of July 2 with the participation of Syrian al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN) and other hardline Islamist brigades, although it is unclear which side is currently gaining momentum. The initial JN and rebel gains in Dera’a City are a notable escalation, though they do not yet constitute a sufficient challenge to pro-regime forces in the city to prompt a regime withdrawal. The “Battle of Southern Storm” however will likely not be restricted to Dera’a city, but rather target the breadth of regime outposts remaining in Dera’a province.
Primarily moderate rebel forces supported by JN and other Islamist rebels set the conditions for this offensive through a yearlong campaign to eliminate major regime-held military bases in the Dera’a and Quneitra countryside. This preparation of the battlefield reflects a long-term campaign design, of which the latest battle for Dera’a City is a recent component. Beginning in June 2014, combined anti-Assad forces successfully restricted the regime to an isolated salient that connects Damascus to Dera’a City. The spokesperson for the Battle of Southern Storm on June 24, 2015 designated this entire stretch of regime-held terrain as a military zone, indicating that the battle is not limited to Dera’a City, but rather is intended to “liberate” the entirety of Dera’a Province. The initial goal of the offensive is to force the regime to fall back to the regime stronghold of Izra’a, north of Dera’a City, according to the deputy commander of a prominent moderate brigade participating in the operation named the Yarmouk Army. If successful, this offensive could allow rebel forces to consolidate in southern Dera’a Province before advancing northward toward Damascus.
Moderate and Islamist Rebels Establish New Command-and-Control Structures
The list of participating rebel brigades in the Battle of Southern Storm is currently unclear. It is possible that negotiations are still ongoing between the Southern Front, JN, and Islamist brigades, which could account for the slow start to the offensive. According to a Southern Front representative, the offensive is coordinated through a “higher central operations room,” which appears to be a new structure established for the purposes of this offensive beginning in June 2015. According to the Yarmouk Army deputy commander, the Battle of Southern Storm involves seven geographically based operations rooms, the term that opposition forces use for headquarters that ensure unity of effort across different groups on the battlefield. The commander did not disclose the composition or location of these operations rooms, which likely include both moderate and Islamist brigades across multiple front lines in southern Syria.
Prior to the declaration of the Battle of Southern Storm, the Southern Front created a new coordinative body in an attempt to formalize its command and control of the more than 40 brigades within the Southern Front. The relationship between this new body and the Battle of Southern Storm operations room is unclear. The role of the Southern Front coalition in rebel military campaigns was previously limited to unifying the political programs and social media efforts of numerous brigades, many of which receive support from regional and Western backers through a Military Operations Command (MOC) center in Amman, Jordan. The Southern Front announced the establishment of a new Joint Military Command on May 15, 2015 under the leadership of Abu Osama al-Joulani from the First Army, a prominent rebel coalition folded under the umbrella of the Southern Front. The new joint command is intended to function as a formal military headquarters with support staff to coordinate the operations of the Southern Front’s component brigades. The command includes five subsidiary offices for operations, armament, logistics, relief, and management. It is unclear whether this joint military command will succeed in increasing the effectiveness of moderate rebel operations against the regime, and some Southern Front commanders have continued to report inefficiencies in the organization’s operations. Its formation is nonetheless a notable step forward that could increase the effectiveness of moderate rebel forces within the Battle of Southern Storm, and it may signal an increase in support provided to the Southern Front by outside backers in the MOC.
Islamist forces supported by JN also created new formal military alliances in the lead-up to the declaration of the Battle of Southern Storm. JN, the Ahrar al-Sham Islamic Movement (HASI), and eight primarily Islamist brigades announced the formation of the Harmoun Army in northern Quneitra Province on June 16. Then, on June 20, JN, HASI, and seven other Islamist rebel groups announced the formation of the Jaysh al-Fatah [“Army of Conquest”] “southern sector” in order “to unify rebel ranks” to combat both “domestic and foreign challenges,” a likely reference to outside funding and military support received by many Southern Front rebel brigades. Jaysh al-Fatah includes relatively small brigades that are loosely associated with the Southern Front in addition to the primarily Islamist Fatah al-Sham operations room. The exact relationship between the Harmoun Army and Jaysh al-Fatah is unclear, but the participation of JN and HASI in both structures indicates that there is likely substantial coordination between the two. Both groups also operate in close proximity to the moderate A'sifa al-Haqq Operations Room based in northwestern Dera’a Province and led by the moderate Southern Front’s First Army. The Harmoun Army, Jaysh al-Fatah, and A’sifa al-Haqq constitute lower echelon military structures that each coordinates the activities of numerous rebel brigades, and in the case of the Harmoun Army and Jaysh al-Fatah, their operations extend farther into southern Syria. Where their operations are co-located southwest of Damascus, it is possible these three smaller coalitions will achieve unity of effort against the regime through one local operations room within the Battle for Southern Storm despite their ideological differences. The question of JN’s increased influence or dominance over moderate rebel structures remains a concern given this potential development.
Rebel Attempts to Limit al-Qaeda Affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra
There are other causes of concern. The Jaysh al-Fatah southern sector is a repeat of a successful model for military operations established by JN and Islamist forces in Idlib Province. The creation of the original Jaysh al-Fatah operations room in Idlib Province enabled JN and Islamist forces to seize control of a majority of Idlib Province from pro-regime forces beginning in March 2015. JN established a second version of the Jaysh al-Fatah model in the Qalamoun region of the Damascus Countryside in April 2015, and has since called for the establishment of a Jaysh al-Fatah version in the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus. JN’s ability to export this model indicates its growing momentum in Syria and its continued significance as a military power in the fight against Assad. JN’s intent to leverage its influence within these structures to shape rebel governance structures and religious activity appears to have prompted some Islamist groups to pressure JN quietly to relinquish its al-Qaeda affiliation. JN’s leader Abu Mohammed al-Joulani rejected this proposal in a two-part interview with al-Jazeera in May and June through which he firmly reasserted JN’s allegiance to al-Qaeda. Islamist forces are likely to continue to accommodate JN’s al-Qaeda character as long as combined JN-Islamist operations against the regime continue to achieve success.
Moderate rebel forces seek to limit JN’s influence in a future post-Assad Syrian state. JN’s deepening role within Islamist structures counters this effort by ensuring JN’s staying power within the province. The Southern Front increased its rhetoric against JN in early 2015, likely prompted by JN’s increasingly overt links to al-Qaeda in public statements. In early April 2015, six rebel brigades released statements condemning JN’s transnational agenda. After the formation of Jaysh al-Fatah, the Southern Front released a statement distancing itself from the new operations room, accusing Jaysh al-Fatah of imposing its own “unnationalistic” agenda against the will of the Syrian people. A number of Southern Front affiliates also released independent statements confirming their refusal to cooperate with Jaysh al-Fatah, including the First Army, Seif al-Sham Brigades, and the 24th Infantry Division. These statements reaffirm the commitment of Southern-Front affiliated brigades to establishing a secular and democratic post-Assad Syrian state in the face of growing JN prominence, possibly in order to satisfy outside supporters. The statements are likely also an attempt to encourage rebel brigades to refrain from deepening their cooperation with JN in Southern Syria by placing a stigma on military structures with overt JN participation.
There is nonetheless little indication that the Southern Front will actually terminate its military cooperation with JN in the near term. Statements by moderate rebel brigades have not resulted in observable changes on the battlefield, where JN, Islamist, and moderate rebel forces continue to operate in close proximity. The Jaysh al-Fatah operations room and the Southern front reportedly confirmed their cooperation prior to the declaration of the Battle of Southern Storm and may have actually formalized their relationship. The participation of JN and Islamist rebels in clashes in Dera’a City, as well as the inclusion of Southern Front-affiliated brigades in the Jaysh al-Fatah coalition, furthermore indicates that segregation between moderates and JN-allied Islamists is unlikely to emerge in Southern Syria. In fact, according to “informed” pro-rebel sources cited by the Syrian activist network Zaman al-Wasl, efforts are underway to “enhance” the coordination between the Southern Front, JN, and Islamist rebels. A rebel source claimed that there are 40 suicide bombers ready for deployment in the Battle of Southern Storm, likely confirming that JN will contribute directly to offensives led by primarily moderate brigades.
The trend in Southern Syria points toward deeper cross-spectrum integration of anti-Assad actors in the absence of direct outside intervention. Additional success against Assad will therefore likely come at the cost of the continued rise to influence of JN and its Islamist allies. Public statements by moderate rebel commanders reflect this reality. In interviews with Syrian activist networks, moderate rebel commanders have consistently deflected questions regarding how to navigate differences between Islamists and moderates in a post-Assad environment. While moderate rebels have become more willing to criticize JN’s vision, they continue to refrain from condemning the Islamist agenda held by other rebel groups such as HASI in favor of remaining united in the fight against Assad. This overall prioritization of the fall of the Assad regime above other long-term questions is a characteristic of Syrian rebel brigades across front lines from northern to southern Syria. Recognizing this reality is a necessary precondition of fruitful engagement with Syrian rebel forces in an effort to accelerate an end to the Syrian war.
Effect on the Regime
The Battle of Southern Storm nevertheless threatens the Assad regime at a particularly vulnerable time. The regime is facing challenges to its remaining outposts on multiple fronts, including Deir ez Zour and Hasaka in the east, Idlib and Hama in the north, and Homs and Qalamoun in central Syria. The seizure of Dera’a City by anti-Assad forces could be a sufficient turning point in the Syrian war to prompt a regime contraction out of Southern Syria toward the Syrian capital, despite the fact that anti-Assad actors in northern, eastern, and southern Syria are not coordinated. Alternately, it is possible that remaining pro-regime forces in Dera’a City are sufficiently capable to resist combined anti-Assad forces. There is reportedly a regime special operations headquarters at the Dera’a City municipal stadium that includes Iranian-sponsored forces. Iran may choose to increase its direct support to Assad in order to forestall regime defeat at Dera’a City. The defeat of the stronghold of Iranian-sponsored paramilitary forces in Busra al-Sham by combined JN, Islamist, and moderate rebels on March 24th indicates, however, that even additional Iranian support may be insufficient to retain Dera’a City.
The regime has substantial military fortifications north of Dera’a City on the Damascus-Dera’a Highway that it could choose to reinforce in the event of a loss at Dera’a City in order to blunt further rebel advances toward the capital. The regime likely does not possess sufficient manpower reserves, however, to do so, especially under growing strain from ISIS in Eastern Homs, Deir ez-Zour, and Hasaka Provinces. The regime is therefore unlikely to succeed in holding an interim defensive line near Izra’a and could choose to withdraw to a more defensible perimeter around Damascus if rebel forces begin to seize greater terrain. This would likely involve a full withdrawal from Dera’a and Suwayda Provinces, and possibly from remaining regime strongholds in northern Quneitra Province, or conversely a surge of pro-regime activity in Quneitra province, strategically positioned next to the Golan Heights. Such a contraction would cause a major shift in the Syrian war, likely requiring Assad to abandon his current strategic objective to maintain his claim to the entirety of Syria.
The regime has reportedly begun to increase its fortification of Damascus, potentially signaling that it intends to harden the capital against future rebel assault as a defensive priority. Existing military fortifications on the high ground on the southern outskirts of the capital, originally intended to blunt an Israeli armored advance from the Golan Heights, provide an existing line of defense that the regime could sufficiently consolidate by withdrawing forces from Dera’a. Regime forces began constructing nearly two kilometers of earthen berms along the Old Dera'a Highway and the Hawsh Belas Industrial Complex south of Damascus on June 23 in an effort to fortify the southern and southwestern entrances to the capital. In a worst-case scenario, the regime may even calculate that chemical weapons will be necessary to halt rebel gains or screen a withdrawal from southern Syria. A report citing U.S. intelligence officials, released on June 28, warned that the regime’s situation may be growing sufficiently dire to prompt the regime to use remaining vestiges of the its chemical weapons stockpile, which experts think Assad may possess.
There have been multiple indicators of the regime’s unease over its disposition in southern Syria. At least two separate groups of pro-regime soldiers have defected to rebel ranks since the beginning of 2015, highlighting declining morale. Iranian officers reportedly executed regime officers in the Dera’a City Municipal Stadium, likely in an attempt to deter further defections or punish perceived failings on the battlefield. Meanwhile, the regime continues to struggle to rally the minority Druze population of neighboring Suwayda Province to replenish pro-regime ranks. Druze residents have actively resisted attempts to implement forced conscription campaigns in Suwayda Province and Druze elders have articulated a policy of restrained self-defense and neutrality in the fighting between regime and rebel forces. Roughly 100 newly enlisted Druze soldiers fled their posts in Eastern Suwayda Province on June 24, allegedly in response to the regime’s intent to deploy them into Eastern Dera’a Province. If the regime contemplates a partition, it is likely that the Druze will prevent the regime from withdrawing its armor from Suwayda Province and opt for allegiance with Syrian rebels. Druze fighters have intervened twice since the beginning of 2015 to prevent the regime from deploying armored columns out of Suwayda Province, likely in order to ensure the Druze population has sufficient military resources to ensure its own protection.
Setting the Conditions for Damascus?
The desire to advance against Damascus in the long-term is a common objective that will likely continue to unite moderate, JN, and Islamist forces on an operational level. The Southern Front in particular has consistently messaged its operations in Dera’a and Quneitra Provinces as condition-setting efforts for a drive to Damascus. The inclusion of prominent Damascus-based rebel commanders into the Southern Front joint command could also indicate the active preparation for a future Damascus offensive. In addition to its five offices, the joint command includes a delegate from the Qalamoun region of the northern Damascus countryside, Bakkour al-Salim, the former leader of the FSA-affiliated Damascus Military Council. The Southern Front has historically included Qalamoun in its claimed area of operations, so the inclusion of Salim into the Southern Front joint command is not necessarily a departure that signals near-term intent to conduct major operations in Damascus. Nonetheless, the inclusion of prominent Damascus-based rebel commanders in the Southern Front joint command indicates that the Southern Front retains a strategic vision that involves leveraging advances in southern Syria into eventual gains in the Syrian capital.
More notable are reports of increasing negotiation between the Southern Front and prominent Islamist brigades based in Damascus. These talks with actors not historically associated with the Southern Front could indicate active efforts to cultivate a new Damascus front as a follow-on operation to the Battle of Southern Storm. Prominent Damascus based Islamist commander Zahran Alloush, the leader of Jaysh al-Islam, has allegedly decreased his direct oversight of rebel operations in the capital in order to participate in a series of meetings with regional actors. Abu Mohammad al-Fateh, the leader of another Damascus based Islamist group named the Ajnad al-Sham Islamic Union, has reportedly filled in as the leader of the Damascus rebel coalition the Eastern Ghouta Unified Command in Alloush’s absence. Alloush reportedly arrived in Turkey on April 17 for a series of undisclosed talks, including a meeting with members of HASI leadership. Then, on June 6, unconfirmed reports indicated that Alloush traveled to Amman, Jordan, in order to meet with foreign intelligence officials and Syrian rebel commanders. According to one report, this meeting focused on discussing options to counter both ISIS and al-Qaeda in Syria. Rumors circulating on Twitter meanwhile alleged that the intelligence officials asked Alloush to coordinate with the Southern Front against ISIS and JN in both Dera'a and Quneitra Provinces, and discussed the potential for replacing Jaysh al-Islam’s flag with the Syrian Revolutionary flag. Alloush has also begun to step back from his previously sectarian rhetoric, most notably during an interview with McClatchy DC in which Alloush referred to the Alawite sect as “part of the Syrian people”. This appears to confirm that outside supporters of Alloush, namely Saudi Arabia, and of the Southern Front broadly are actively exploring options to achieve unity of effort across previously disparate moderate and Islamist rebel ranks.
Implications for U.S. Policy
The emerging situation in Southern Syria provides a new opportunity for the U.S. to engage in Syria. The aggregate effects of the rebel campaign in Southern Syria, recent JN and rebel victories in Idlib Province, and continued pressure by ISIS on the Assad regime across multiple fronts may sufficiently disrupt the regime to render a feasible end to the Syrian war. A reevaluation of the scope of the U.S. train and assist program can generate meaningful ground partnerships if it accommodates a wider mission in Syria, namely helping rather than discouraging rebels from their primary effort to overthrow Assad. Especially given the recently confirmed defection of another vetted unit of Syrian rebels from the program, the program as it stands currently is not poised to have a positive impact upon either the Syrian war or the war against ISIS. The moderate rebel Southern Front on the other hand offers a compelling option for direct U.S. engagement under an altered policy framework. The Southern Front does not, however, present a full solution.
The U.S. could consider the possibility of leveraging select Islamist rebels as allies alongside the Southern Front. Even strong moderate rebels in Southern Syria are insufficient to defeat Assad or to ensure the establishment of a stable post-Assad Syrian state capable of addressing the threats of al-Qaeda and ISIS. The involvement of powerful Islamist rebel groups that are not committed to JN may therefore be critical for achieving success in Syria. A spectrum of Islamist brigades exists in Syria, ranging from hardline groups with close ideological affiliation with JN to more mainstream groups with a desire for Shari’a law to inform a post-Assad Syrian state. The U.S. has the option to engage with the latter category, namely mainstream independent Islamist groups that are fighting alongside moderate forces. Attempts by the moderate Southern Front to negotiate constructive relationships with Islamist brigades, possibly including some Damascus-based Islamists, signal an opportunity for the U.S. and regional partners to capitalize on existing options for cross-spectrum rebel coordination that does not cater directly to al-Qaeda’s interests. This engagement must extend to northern Syria, where moderates and Islamists continue to work in close coordination against the regime, but also where moderates are operating at a relative disadvantage.
A carefully tailored engagement with some Syrian Islamist groups could enable the U.S to take action to contain and diminish JN’s influence in Syria. It is critical that the U.S. take action to reverse the formalized coordination between JN and Islamist forces that translated into joint JN and Islamist governance structures within Idlib City after seizing the City in March 2015. A similar development in Southern Syria may become likely if the Battle of Southern Storm succeeds, in which the Southern Front is compelled to accept the involvement of JN and Islamist actors in post-Assad institutions. Over the long term, this embedded JN presence is a strategic threat for the U.S. because of the staying power and access to resources it provides to al-Qaeda in Syria. The U.S. could leverage increased support to both moderate and select Islamist forces to appeal to more hardline Islamist groups such as HASI to abandon their allegiance to JN. HASI’s participation in cross-spectrum rebel efforts to establish a united political program, notably through the Syrian Revolutionary Command Council based in Turkey, indicates that the U.S. could likely succeed in this effort. The U.S. should nonetheless be prepared for JN to attempt to rally its rebel allies to resist the U.S. and fight U.S.-supported rebels. With sufficient U.S. commitment, however, JN will be unable to sustain this narrative in the long term.
A defeat of the regime in southern Syria will likely produce escalating violence in the absence of intervention to mitigate potential risks. Rebel advances will likely provoke the regime to resort to desperate tactics such as the use of residual chemical weapons capability in order to forestall defeat in Southern Syria or facilitate a regime contraction. In the absence of overt support by the U.S. or regional actors to Syrian rebels, the regime may calculate that it can act with impunity and continue its escalation against civilians. Further atrocity by the Syrian regime could prompt retributive attacks by Syrian rebel groups against pro-regime populations, such as those in remaining besieged enclaves north of Aleppo City and northeast of Idlib City. JN will likely capitalize on escalating violence in order to propagate its sectarian narrative, and possibly generate support for a campaign against the coastal Alawite heartland. This increased destabilization within the Syrian Civil War will provide opportunities for ISIS to expand, potentially encouraging ISIS to launch a major spectacular attack against a major regime target such as Homs City.
Furthermore, the narrow focus of the U.S. on a counter-ISIS mission despite these realities risks encouraging regional actors to undertake unilateral action, which could actually provoke further instability and spillover of the Syrian war. Unconfirmed reports have emerged that indicate Turkey, Israel, and Jordan are independently contemplating the establishment of no-fly zones or humanitarian corridors along their respective borders. For Turkey, the focus is negating the ability of Syrian Kurds to declare an independent state along the Turkish border, in addition to likely Turkish desire to resettle Syrian refugees on the Syrian side of the border. For Israel, the calculation appears to focus on the security of the Golan Heights border. For Jordan, the consideration of a humanitarian corridor appears to reflect a desire to prevent JN from ascending further, as it did in Idlib Province. The vocal reports of the consideration of unilateral measures by these governments likely signals increasing pressure on the U.S. to intervene in Syria. If the U.S. continues to ignore their calls for American leadership, it is a dangerous but likely scenario that the U.S. will ultimately have to provide that leadership in the future under worse circumstances.
The U.S. must therefore carefully consider the options for intervention in Syria while recognizing the likely cost of refraining to act. In mid-2015, a large and sustained engagement with a spectrum of Syrian rebels as a component of a comprehensive strategy to end the Syrian war offers the opportunity for the U.S. to accomplish three strategic objectives in the region: to mitigate the humanitarian disaster in Syria, to contain and diminish al-Qaeda’s influence, and to set the conditions to defeat ISIS. Conversely, limited means of intervention, such as no fly zones, train and assistance only of vetted rebels, or targeted airstrikes against ISIS and al-Qaeda, incur greater risk of atrocity and violent extremism if they are not pursued as components of a strategy to the Syrian war. The forms of limited intervention proposed by neighboring states meanwhile leave the growing strength of JN in Syria entirely untouched, presenting a long term and strategic threat in the form of a highly capable and resilient al-Qaeda affiliate. While the realistic options for successful intervention are costly, they must nonetheless be considered in accordance with the likely outcomes of the Syrian Civil War in order to ensure U.S. national security and stability in the region.