Syria Analysis: A New US-Backed Rebel Front in South v. ISIS? Not Quite.
PHOTO: Rebels after the capture Busra al-Sham in southern Syria, March 2015
On Saturday, the Gulf-based newspaper The National declared that “a new push by western and Arab-backed rebel forces is under way in southern Syria to defeat ISIL [Islamic State] factions dug in close to the Jordanian and Israeli borders”.
Reporters Phil Sands and Suha Maayeh explained that the effort would accompany offensives against ISIS-held Fallujah in western Iraq and, working with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, towards the ISIS center of Raqqa in northern Syria: “The campaign [in the south] has been orchestrated by the Military Operations Command in Amman, the secretive center staffed by army and intelligence officers from the US, UK and Arab Gulf states.”
So is this finally the co-ordination of effective support to rebels to not only withstand the Islamic State in Syria? After a year of starving rebel factions of assistance — denying them weapons because of political disputes and even fears of a too-quick collapse of the Assad regime — has the MOC finally embraced a significant campaign?
The optimistic line of The National’s article, supported by some “opposition commanders on the southern front”, is that the February 27 cessation of hostilities has largely halted fighting with pro-Assad forces, freeing up “moderate” rebels to face ISIS. So 4,500 fighters — “including groups trained in night-time warfare tactics by US special forces in Jordan” — will challenge Islamic State positions in Daraa Province.
Rebels have been battling ISIS-linked factions such as Harakat al-Muthanna and Liwa Shuhada al-Yarmouk for months in western Daraa.
The MOC even criticized rebels for delaying operations, sending the message, “The supporting countries are tired of your excuses.” Last week the foreign-led center threat threatened cuts in support — for each day’s delay in operation, a week’s worth of funding wuld be docked.
The claims are intriguing, but they are put in perspective by what is left out of the story and the remarks of the MOC officials and opposition commanders who supported it:
1. A YEAR OF STARVATION
The article never mentions the recent history of the MOC and Syria’s rebels, in which victories — against both the Assad regime and the Islamic State — were turned into disputes and defeats.
In spring 2015, alongside the rapid offensive that claimed much of northwest Syria, rebels had pro-Assad forces on the ropes in much of southern Syria. The opposition had claimed most of Daraa Province, including checkpoints and towns along the Jordanian border. The prospect arose of the capture of Daraa city, divided since 2012, and of a drive north towards Damascus.
At that point, the MOC sharply restricted aid. In part, the suspension was because of the center’s opposition to a rebel drive into Suweida Province, fearing that tensions would be inflamed with the mainly-Druze population. However, it was also because of concerns that a sudden collapse of the Syrian military would topple the Assad regime too quickly, leading to chaos, a power of vacuum, and the possibility of an “extremist” takeover.
That situation has not changed. Although there are other important reasons for the halt to rebel success, such as divisions among factions within the rebellion and problems with coordination of operations, the cutting of arms and supplies is still central.
But the MOC’s strategy was not to hold back the rebels, according to some local sources. They say it was to cripple some groups, effectively trying to feed the dissension within the rebellion. One summarizes, “The policy was to let Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham” — the two largest factions — “as well as Jabhat al-Nusra bleed”.
The effect was not only to give the Assad regime breathing space. It also helped the Islamic State, given that Jaish al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham were the leading groups battling ISIS in southeastern Syria.
2. THE “NEW” REBELS ARE NOT GETTING FULL ASSISTANCE…
There has also been a PR push this spring about US-led assistance to the “New Syrian Army”, a combination of rebel factions tasked with fighting ISIS near the Iraqi border. In March, the NSA had a high-profile success with the capture of the Tanf crossing on the border.
But local sources say the effort has been limited. They note that while the NSA has light arms, it lacks heavy weapons for protracted battles. Long-range rocket and artillery support, and perhaps even aerial cover from the US-led coalition, may have been promised but it has not materialized.
Thus, one well-placed source says, “These men were sent into Syria without the means to defend themselves.”
The outcome may be another setback for the series of operations trumpeted by the Obama Administration against the Islamic State since September 2014. Last week, Liz Sly of The Washington Post revealed that the NSA was crippled in early May by an ISIS vehicle bomb.
NSA officers said that they were already hindered by a lack of promised weapons and equipment. One summarized, “I’m not saying the Americans let us down, but there is dereliction of duty. They are not doing what they could.”
3. …AND THE ESTABLISHED REBELS ARE GETTING NONE AT ALL
But even if the MOC defies recent history and does give significant aid to a new rebel force in southern Syria, the effort is likely to be marginal given the continued ban on assistance to the largest factions.
There is no prospect of Washington allowing weapons and aid to Ahrar al-Sham, given the long-term US suspicion that it is too “extremist” for any productive relationship. But the ban also extends to Jaish al-Islam, which has long been the most important force near Damascus.
Suspicious of the faction as “Islamist”, the MOC has never provided any assistance, even though Jaish al-Islam is significant in the opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee — and even though the group has been the leading barrier to the Islamic State’s advance in areas such as as the eastern Qalamoun region.
That ban has continued while Jaish al-Islam has been under sustained pressure by the bombing and ground offensives of the Syrian military and Hezbollah, including advances by the pro-Assad forces into the southern part of East Ghouta this month.
Those advances put into perspective the line of The National article, supported by rebel commanders who are getting some MOC assistance, that the effort against the Islamic State is possible because of the February 27 cessation of hostilities. In fact, there has been no “cessation of hostilities” near Damascus — a significant impediment to any supposed campaign against ISIS.
A TOKEN EFFORT?
The combination of these fundamentals, all ignored in The National article, indicates that the “new push” is likely to be a token effort. The campaign may have some marginal success in the local battle against ISIS-linked groups in western Daraa, but it is unlikely to affect the situation elsewhere — not just against the Islamic State but, most importantly, in the battle between rebels and pro-Assad forces.
Indeed, the shrewd analyst might be looking beyond the MOC for some signals. While the US dominates headlines with its latest declaration of a new group that will be backed, Syria’s largest rebels are looking at Saudi Arabia. Part of the MOC, the Saudis have both accepted the American line but also chafed at the restrictions on arms and supplies for any significant effort.
A day after The National’s article, Mohammad Alloush — a senior Jaish al-Islam official who is the lead negotiator of the opposition-rebel High Negotiations Committee, forged in a conference in Riyadh last December — announced that he is quitting the Geneva political talks. His message was clear: given the Assad regime’s continued bombing and sieges and its rejection of any transitional process, there is no value in any more talks and there is no “cessation of hostilities”.
That in turn points to a focus by Jaish al-Islam and other groups on the battlefield, a focus which is on the regime-Russian-Iranian-Hezbollah alliance as well as the ISIS threat.
No doubt the US will reject that focus. But will the Saudis continue to defer to an American veto?