Sunday,22 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)
Sunday,22 July, 2018
Issue 1242, (16-22 April 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Syria’s revolutionary south

New hope is emerging in the south of Syria of a concerted front against government forces and their Iranian backers, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

The rest of the country may have lost any sense of direction, with the regime led by President Bashar Al-Assad losing control to its Iranian handlers, the moderates unable to cope with the new crops of home-made and imported militants, and the lines of confrontation shifting as fast as the murky alliances of dozens of local outfits whose goals may or may not have anything to do with the revolution of four years ago.

But there is hope emerging in the south of Syria, where a federation of moderate groups, well-trained and disciplined, acting under a unified command, and committed to human rights and the laws of war, has been making slow but steady progress over the past few weeks.

The federation, which calls itself the Southern Front (SF), has managed to expel the regime’s forces from Bosra, formerly a stronghold of the regime and its Iranian advisers, together with its proxy Hizbullah and Houthi armies.

Holding a border strip as deep as 40 km and controlling nearly 1,300 square kilometres of territory running along Jordan’s borders, the SF has access to supplies, an eye on the capital Damascus, and the resolve to turn things around.

With all the southern border crossing points now in its hands, the SF has seized positions formerly held by two government artillery brigades, an infantry battalion, and an engineering battalion. Its commanders say that they are combing villages in the south, expelling the remnants of regime forces and reassuring locals of their safety.

The regime has reacted in its usual manner by sending planes to strafe civilian areas. But support for the SF remains solid in the south, where its fighters are treated as heroes and liberators. The popular support is partially due to the fact that many SF personnel are from the south, and the villages they protect are inhabited by their families and friends.

When they go into battle, the SF fighters fly the flag of the Syrian Revolution, not the variety of black flags that the jihadists have made their own. According to local commanders, the SF is now in control of the country’s borders with Israel and is poised to advance towards Damascus.

With 30,000 fighters belonging to 54 outfits, the SF operates under a central command, just like any regular army. None of its member groups has anything to do with Al-Qaeda affiliates, splinters, or wannabes. The SF has refused to cooperate with the Al-Nusrah Front and indeed has expelled it from certain areas in the south.

The SF, which operates on behalf of the opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA), says it does not wish to have a say in politics once the guns fall silent, but will turn into a security outfit subservient to the political authority the nation chooses.

In various statements, it has declared its commitment to the original goals of the revolution and vowed to uphold the laws of war and respect human rights.

SF spokesman Essam Al-Rayyes said that all the factions operating under the SF command were committed to “the declaration of principles that we have issued.” In that declaration, the SF vows to “respect the international laws of war and the goals of the revolution,” Al-Rayyes remarked.

“Our mission ends the day the regime falls. We will have no role in determining the nature of the future political system of the country – this being the task of all Syrians,” he added.

According to Al-Rayyes, the SF intends to serve as “civil-defence groups working under the political leadership that will be formed.”

In previous rivalries between the moderates and the extremists, the latter often won. But Al-Rayyes said this was not the case in the south.

“The charter of joint defence that the SF has endorsed and the cohesion of its factions and leaders makes it harder for the extremists to even think of confronting our federation in the manner seen in other areas. There is power in numbers, and we have that power on our side,” he stated.

The SF and local forces hope to see the south turned into a no-fly zone, a development which would place considerable pressure on the regime.

In a recent development, SF fighters brought down a regime plane using a heat-seeking missile. This could be a harbinger of things to come, since in the past such weapons were not part of the arsenal of the revolutionaries.

Iyad Barakat, an SF military commander, said the fighting in the south was basically “between us and Iran”.

“Our fighters are fighting valiantly to expel the enemy that has invaded our country,” he said.

According to Barakat, “there are more than 600 fighters from the Iranian Republican Guards Corps, 3,000 from Hizbullah and 1,000 or so Iraqi, Afghan and Yemeni fighters” deployed in the south.

The Iranians, Barakat said, had brought 300 rocket launchers to the south “to stop our advance on Damascus”.

He claimed that senior Iranian officers were supervising the military operations. The Iranians “decide the fire power and draw up the military plans,” Barakat said. “The Syrian army has no role in any of this,” he added.

The SF has been making steady progress. Over the past few weeks, it has seized minor military centres, radar bases, tanks and personnel carriers.

The regime seems unable to reclaim what it has lost. Air-raids have become its only means of keeping the revolutionaries at bay, according to local commanders who insist that a no-fly zone in the south could change everything.

Between the SF positions in the south and Damascus the regime has placed four military battalions armed with heavy weapons and artillery. However, local commanders insist that these battalions would defect without resistance if a credible campaign was launched against them.

Their point is that the regime has not dared to engage any of these battalions in battle, knowing that most of their personnel are disaffected and have no interest in defending the regime.

Most of their personnel, the SF commanders say, are from cities and villages the regime has already bombed. Only the top commanders belong to the regime’s sect, and their families live in areas still controlled by the regime.

“Our fighters are fighting on their own turf and are familiar with the ground around them. They know they are fighting a war of liberation against a foreign enemy,” the SF spokesman said.

With aerial help from abroad, the SF commanders insist, they can topple the regime and start Syria on a new path.

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