The future of Syria’s southern front

Originally commissioned February 2016

The Southern Front coalition in Syria’s southern Daraa province is the only powerful faction left in Syria to have maintained both a secular, Syria-focused ethos and remain the dominant group in its region. However, set back by rivalries and lack of coordination, and having experienced a number of disastrous failures, its future strategy is hard to predict.

  • Unlike other parts of Syria, the Southern Front has maintained the original ethos of the rebellion, thanks to a number of factors particular to its location.

  • Poor coordination, infighting and lack of direction have hampered its success, but its foreign backers, despite growing skepticism, are providing support.
  • Recent regime advances have turned back what was seen as a promising front and shaken rebel control in the area.

From late 2014 to summer 2015, the Southern Front (SF) coalition enjoyed a series of victories, all the while managing to affirm its majority FSA-orientated make-up. The coalition began in early 2014 and at the time was accused of being merely a label to appeal to foreign backers, rather than a meaningful alliance. The SF’s coherence appears to ebb and flow in line with its success, with sub-alliances forming and falling apart, but this can be said for nearly all armed Syrian coalitions.

Now the SF is the last remaining effective fighting group in Syria where the majority of groups maintain significant secular and Syria-focused discourse common at the start of the rebellion, as opposed to adopting a strictly religious identity.. The coalition has included groups with a more Islamist-orientation but its largest fighting force, Jaish al-Yarmouk, still maintains FSA identity. This has been a very appealing factor for the SF’s foreign backers.

Jahbat al-Nusra has long sought to portray itself as powerful in the south and has indeed cooperated in battles with other groups, including from the SF, proving itself an effective fighting force. However, Jahabt al-Nusra’s claims outweigh its actual presence in the south. Last year, it deferred to the SF’s judiciary body, the Dar al-Adl (House of Justice) to resolve a dispute. Nonetheless, groups in the SF have at times benefited from Jahbat al-Nusra’s support, a concern for SF’s foreign backers.

The SF has maintained this identity, unlike other fronts, due to peculiarities of its location. Daraa province, where the groups are based, is isolated from the rest of the uprising, with desert and Daesh to the east, regime territory to the north, Israel to the west and Jordan to the south. Amman secured the Jordanian border early on in the conflict and it is a relatively easy border to control, preventing the influx of foreign fighters seen elsewhere. Jordan hosts a Military Operations Center (MOC), from which foreign powers are able to easily liaise with the SF and choose which groups to fund. The Israeli border is also relatively secure and, given Israel’s security posture, not an easy route for foreign Jihadis to enter Syria.

Daesh has also sought to gain affiliates in the south but its strength is still limited. Many of the fighting groups in the coalition are local, maintaining ties to the communities in which they are based. This is not fertile ground for foreign groups to take hold, even Jahbat al-Nusra has in its southern branch a much higher proportion of Syrian fighters than in the north. Moreover, unlike in the north, where battle lines have moved dramatically, the south has stayed relatively static. These factors have allowed for relative consistency, not seen elsewhere.

Infighting and disagreements over strategy have hampered the success of groups in the south. There have been many cases of groups waiting for others to lead an offensive and risk their forces before engaging in fighting, leading to all sides refraining. These instances shook the confidence of foreign backers. In summer 2015, the SF launched the ‘Southern Storm’ offensive, which ended in a costly, failed attempt to drive regime forces from the provincial capital, Daraa. At the end of the two month campaign, foreign backers, who had instructed fighting groups not to attack Daraa, scaled back their funding significantly, marking a significant blow to the coalition. Funding, directed from the Jordan MOC, was renegotiated at the beginning of January this year, dependent on the SF expelling Jahbat al-Nusra from the south. For this, new funding and training was to be provided, and, most likely, demands for a more coherent strategy and consistent military operations.

Since December last year, with the support of Russian air power, the Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters have been advancing southwards. Such a move had previously seemed unlikely due to both Jordan and Israel’s presumed opposition to it. However, there may have been back channel discussions between Moscow and Amman, and between Moscow and Jerusalem, which allowed this to move forward.At the end of January, regime forces captured the crucial town of Sheikh Maskeen with the loss was blamed on fighting between the SF and Harakat al-Muthanna, a group close to Jahbat al-Nusra (although there has been speculation it holds Daesh sympathies). Harakat al-Muthanna reportedly prevented Jaish al-Yarmouk reinforcements reaching Sheikh Maskeen, which may have changed the outcome of the battle.

The regime capture of Sheikh Maskeen reopened the supply line from Daraa to Damascus. This impacted the SF’s access to Damascus, shook its control of Daraa province and reduced pressure on regime forces in Daraa city. Sheikh Maskeen lies at a strategic significant cross-roads across Daraa province. Its loss comes amid substantial advances and consolidation across the country for regime forces. How the SF and its foreign backers will react to this loss remains unclear as recovery will likely prove difficult.

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