By Michael Karadjis
According to two articles attached below this post, a number of changes have been taking place in southern Syria, where the Southern Front (SF) of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) holds sway over much of Daraa and Quneitra provinces, and shares a border with Jordan, through which the US, Saudi Arabia and Jordan itself attempt to exercise sway over the situation.
The first article (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/566514-daraa-rebels-ordered-to-stop-fighting-syria-regime-report) claims that the Military Operations Room (MOC) in Amman, Jordan, through which these countries have contact with the SF, has ordered the SF to stop fighting the regime, and even to avoid the more patchy conflicts with ISIS (merely because ISIS has so little presence in the south), and instead to make war against Jabhat al-Nusra. The second article (http://www.mei.edu/content/article/has-jordan-acquiesced-assad-regime-offensive-southern-syria) describes how the Kingdom of Jordan, where the MOC is based, is coordinating with both the US and Russia, and has essentially acquiesced with the Assad regime’s current Russian-backed offensive to re-take the south; and that the US has cut off its already miserable “support” to the SF, a claim in accord with many other sources of late.
Who is the Southern Front
As is widely known by those seriously following Syria, the Southern Front (SF) of the FSA is perhaps the most clearly secular/anti-sectarian part of the anti-Assad resistance in the country. Its founding statement, in February 2014, declared:
“We are the farmers, the teachers, and the workers that you see every day. Many of us were among the soldiers who defected from a corrupt regime that had turned its weapons around to fight its own countrymen. We represent many classes but our goal is one: to topple the Assad regime and give Syria a chance at a better future. There is no room for sectarianism and extremism in our society, and they will find no room in Syria’s future. The Syrian people deserve the freedom to express their opinions and to work toward a better future. We are striving to create in Syria a government that represents the people and works for their interest. We are the Southern Front” (https://www.zamanalwsl.net/news/46545.html).
Moreover, while its similarly secular/non-sectarian FSA allies throughout northern Syria are far more significant than western media, and its leftist echo, make them out to be (an excellent summary of FSA strength in Syria can be seen here: http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/yes-there-are-70000-moderate-opposition-fighters-in-syria-heres-what-we-know-about-them/), they nevertheless have to share their space with a variety of softer or harder line Islamist factions, whereas in the south the SF is more or less absolutely dominant within most opposition-controlled regions. Consisting of some 54 FSA brigades, it reportedly contains some 35,000 troops in battle against the Assad regime (http://rfsmediaoffice.com/en/free-syrian-army-factions-of-the-southern-front-unite-their-forces-against-the-regime-and-extremists/, http://rfsmediaoffice.com/en/the-free-syrian-army-southern-front-transitional-phase/).
“Support” full of strings and red lines
In order to try to control the SF’s movements and attempt to co-opt it in future, the US and Saudi Arabia have sent a certain amount of aid to the SF via the MOC in Jordan (more specifically, Saudi Arabia has often tried to send more, and the US has tended to restrict this as much as possible even at the best of times). Most of this “support” is nothing to write home about, especially when compared with the need, in confronting the massive arsenal of advanced killing equipment used by the Assad regime and continually re-supplied in enormous quantities by Russia and Iran, not to mention the actual Russian airforce and thousands of Iranian and allied troops.
However, it is the political purpose of such “support” that is the issue here; and this tends to become apparent whenever the SF starts winning.
After the SF made a string of victories in the south in early 2015, taking the last Jordanian border crossing at Nasib, the Sheik Miskeen and Nawa regions, the historic town of Bushra al-Sham and the decisive regime base 52 (corresponding to a similar string of victories by the rebels in the north in Idlib and Hama), the US and MOC imposed a series of “red lines” on the SF, where the SF was not to go. These reportedly included the central al-Mahata area of Daraa city (the regime-controlled capital of Daraa province, which is largely controlled by the SF), the neighbouring Druze-majority province Suweida, anywhere north towards the key city of Sasa, and any attempt to link up with the rebel-held outer suburbs of Damascus or to advance on Damascus itself (http://eaworldview.com/2015/08/syria-daily-regime-carries-out-another-mass-killing-in-douma/#daraa).
SF offensives to take Daraa city, and also the Thala airbase on the Suweida border, were unsupported, or even blocked, by the MOC (http://syria4rev.blogspot.co.uk/2015/07/why-is-operation-southern-storm-failing.html, https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/commentary/565651-the-southern-front-allies-without-a-strategy, http://eaworldview.com/2015/06/syria-feature-joint-operations-room-in-jordan-halted-rebel-assault-on-key-regime-airbase/). According to some reports, any violation of the “red line” against advancing towards Damascus would be met by US air strikes.
The US interest: Turn the FSA into Sawha
In other words, as elsewhere, the US did not want the regime to totally crush the SF, as this would leave the Sunni populations no alternative but to gravitate to the more Islamist or even jihadist militias; and also because the US hoped to use a weakened, and thus more dependent, SF in future as part of a ‘Sawha’ operation that would make peace with the regime and merely fight ISIS, or Nusra, or both, or even other Islamists; however, it also certainly did not want the SF to advance and threaten victory over Assad.
As we have seen with US attempts to turn some FSA-connected fighters into Sawha, there is never any success; the $500 million attempt to train and equip fighters to fight ISIS only, and give up the fight against Assad, netted about 100 fighters, who collapsed in a heap as soon as they entered Syria last year. This is because the whole point of the FSA’s existence is to overthrow the fascist regime.
Not that the FSA had any problem fighting ISIS; the FSA declared war on ISIS (and vice versa) in July 2013, and from January 2014 led other rebels in launching a nationwide coordinated attack on ISIS that drove it from the whole of western Syria, the most massive defeat for ISIS anywhere in Syria by anyone. But this was on their own initiative; they certainly never dropped the war on the regime, on the contrary the FSA recognised that the Assad regime and ISIS not only tended to collaborate with each other, but moreover were both enemies that needed to be defeated.
On the other hand, while the FSA has continually clashed with Nusra, this has mostly taken a defensive form; Nusra, unlike ISIS, has tended to direct most of its fore against the regime (and against ISIS), and has tended to be much more reticent about imposing the kind of furious theocratic repression that defines the Islamic State. Therefore, the FSA has long rejected the US diktat, active since 2012, to defer the fight against Assad and instead launch an all-out war against Nusra (http://www.thenational.ae/news/world/middle-east/americas-hidden-agenda-in-syrias-war).
The FSA well-understands that Nusra is a sectarian danger to the revolution that will need to be dealt with at a time of their own choosing, but with far more powerful and far more murderous enemies, they also understand that the US demand that it launch a premature attack on Nusra is merely an attempt to get the democratic and Islamist opponents of Assad to eliminate each other while the regime laughs.
Moreover, the Syrian composition of Nusra (unlike much of ISIS) means that a significant section of its ranks are only in Nusra due to its better arms, finance and organisation, and not due to ideological commitment; therefore, the continual US bombing of Nusra since 2014, while the mass-murdering regime remains untouched, is perceived by Syrians as an indirect attack on the revolution, regardless of their opinions on Nusra (see the condemnations of US air strikes by most FSA and rebel forces in 2014: https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2014/09/25/syrian-rebels-overwhelmingly-condemn-us-bombing-as-an-attack-on-revolution/).
SF walks fine line: No cooperation with Nusra, but no war with Nusra
In the case of the SF, unlike its FSA allies in the north, where conditions dictate they need to militarily collaborate with a range of Islamists, including even Nusra, the SF declared in 2015 that it would no longer coordinate even on a simple military level with Nusra, due to the fundamental ideological differences:
“[We] reject any military or [ideological] cooperation or rapprochement with the Al-Nusra Front or any takfiri [ideology] adopted by any group among the ranks of the Syrian rebels … [We] consider the Southern Front the only military [entity] representing the Syrian revolution in southern Syria” (https://now.mmedia.me/lb/en/NewsReports/565114-fsa-moves-against-nusra-in-south-syria).
FSA advisor Usama Abu Zeid explained the move as having a number of causes (http://eaworldview.com/2015/04/syria-interview-why-southern-rebels-distanced-themselves-from-jabhat-al-nusra/). First, the FSA said that “from a place of responsibility towards the nation,” Nusra needs to split with al-Qaida. Second, while “the Syrian revolution can absorb differences in ideas and opinions,” they must “fall within the framework of the national Syrian revolution” and thus “transnational agendas” must be rejected. Zeid also noted the tendency of Nusra to claim responsibility for SF victories, and foreign media played this up (whereas the same media tended to blame the SF when there were defeats).
When a mafiosi Nusra unit in northern Idlib province massacred 23 Druze villagers last June, all Syrian revolutionary organisations vigorously condemned this crime (https://mkaradjis.wordpress.com/2015/06/15/revolutionary-forces-throughout-syria-condemn-nusras-massacre-of-druze-villagers/). The Southern Front’s condemnation was particularly strong:
“The Southern Front condemns in the strongest terms the horrible massacre that happened to our people in Luweiza in Idlib committed by the Nusra Front and considers it a crime committed against common living and Syrian diversity in general and announces its readiness to protect Druze villages in Idlib as an additional step to protect Syrian diversity and richness” (https://www.facebook.com/solidaysyria/photos/a.634790499897689.1073741830.625693980807341/913965731980163/?type=1).
However, in the same interview cited above, FSA advisor Usama Abu Zeid emphasised that it has no intention of going to war against Nusra, understanding who the main enemies are:
“Jabhat al-Nusra needs to understand that this is not a declaration of war. The FSA has exercised self-restraint in several situations, and has made the national interest and the gains of the Syrian revolution the top priority. The FSA has not taken upon itself the decision to face off [with Nusra]. Jabhat al-Nusra needs to understand that its connection to Al Qa’eda hurts the Syrian interest.”
This shows the fine line the “moderate” yet revolutionary militant SF has tried to walk.
The context: Regime aims to finish off southern resistance for Vienna “peace process”
This is the general background to the news we read in these two articles below, about the MOC ordering the SF to fight Nusra instead of Assad, and the US cutting “support.” The more specific context of these moves includes the increasingly savage Russian bombing all over the south (ie, of an area where ISIS does not exist) and of regime starvation sieges of the revolutionary towns and suburbs around Damascus.
The US knows it cannot use the proudly independent SF for its own purposes, and so it will only begin again to send some “support” if the SF turns itself into a US proxy to fight Nusra, and enters into alliance with the regime as part of the Vienna ‘peace process’, ie, enters into a “transitional” regime with elements of the regime, and as is now official US policy, these “elements” include Assad himself, and his immediate circle of henchmen – Assad will still head the “transitional” regime till mid-2017!
This entire process needs an article of its own, but its general outline needs to be understood in order to grasp these latest moves of sabotage against the Southern Front (watch this space for that upcoming article, in the meantime I recommend analyses on the excellent Magpie [https://magpie68.wordpress.com/2016/01/25/russias-double-game-in-syria/, https://magpie68.wordpress.com/2015/11/24/syria-peace-in-our-time/] and Eternal Spring [https://eternispring.wordpress.com/2015/12/21/5-points-to-make-on-syria-and-its-future-prospects/] blogs).
In this, the role of Jordan at the southern border is crucial – the Jordanian monarchy has placed itself as the go-between for the US and Russia, both of which it has excellent relations with; Jordan is essentially allied to the line of Egypt’s tyrannical regime of al-Sisi (pro-US, pro-Russia, pro-Assad). It was therefore no surprise that, tasked with drawing up a list of “terrorist” organisations to be excluded from the Vienna “peace process,” against whom all-out war is to be launched by the “transitional” regime and all foreign states currently bombing Syria, Jordan came up with a list of some 160 rebel groups, some half the anti-Assad insurgency (http://www.middleeasteye.net/news/jordan-presents-list-160-terrorist-groups-syria-international-council-2106399989)!
The betrayal of the SF and the question of “moderates”
One final comment about the search for Syrian “moderates.” Most supporters of the Syrian revolution hate the Orientalist way that western imperialists and the western left use this term to decide who are “good” and “bad” Syrians when they are fighting for their very survival against such a barbaric regime bombing its entire country to bits. One would not feel very “moderate” in such circumstances. If being “moderate” means responding to a fascist regime using every conceivable weapon bar nuclear against its people, by forming prayer groups and engaging in letter writing campaigns rather than shooting back, then sure there are few “moderates,” and who would want them.
However, “moderate” might also be used as a not-very-precise political identification. Thus, rebels who are politically “moderate” might either be politically secular, that is believe in full separation of church and state, and the setting up of a civil state, or, if Islamist, be only of the mildest kind, opposed to forcible imposition of so-called “Islamic law” and so on; and more generally, to support democracy, women’s rights, and equality for Syria’s various ethnic and religious groups. That is, “moderate” as opposed to advocates of theocratic repression. In this case, there are of course plenty of “moderates” fighting the regime in Syria (http://blogs.new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/yes-there-are-70000-moderate-opposition-fighters-in-syria-heres-what-we-know-about-them), of which the SF is a prominent example, and of course they deserve our support.
Using this meaning, the only thing worse than hearing imperialist leaders complaining that there are hardly any “moderates” to support, and if you do arm them, they give their arms to the “extremists,” is listening to the imperial “left” criticising imperialist rulers for ever thinking there were any “moderates” at all, and agreeing that if they did exist, they would give their weapons to “jihadists”. Because, after all, the imperial left knows even better than the imperialist leaders that there can be “no good guys” in a place like Syria; everyone there, of course, is scum.
Unfortunately, finding many among the imperial left to be even more racist than imperialist rulers on this question is no longer surprising.
But what the incident with the failed US attempt to forge an anti-ISIS brigade that would not fight Assad, on one hand, and the betrayal of the genuine, powerful SF, on the other, reveal, is that finding politically “moderate” forces fighting the regime who are powerful enough is not really the problem it is made out to be. The problem is that for the US and other western states, “moderate” also means being ready to serve western “interests” rather than the interests of the Syrian revolution. And the FSA has never been “moderate” like this. Because this means ending the revolution and joining an Assadist regime, with or without Assad (and now it means explicitly with).
Explaining why the US was not arming the Syrian rebels back in 2013, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, said that the Obama administration was opposed to “even limited” US military intervention in Syria as no side represented US interests (http://blogs.reuters.com/david-rohde/2013/08/22/a-moment-of-truth-in-damascus-and-washington): “Syria today is not about choosing between two sides but rather about choosing one among many sides… It is my belief that the side we choose must be ready to promote their interests and ours when the balance shifts in their favour. Today, they are not.”
Thus not “moderate” enough.
These two articles below describe the current turn of events quite well.
Daraa rebels ordered to stop fighting Syria regime: report
The Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) directed Southern Front factions to focus their efforts against Al-Nusra Front.
BEIRUT – The Amman-based Military Operations Center (MOC) that helps coordinate rebel operations in southern Syria has ordered Free Syrian Army-affiliated factions to stop attacking regime forces and instead focus their efforts against the Nusra Front, according to a Lebanese daily.
Al-Akhbar reported that the MOC informed the commanders of several Southern Front coalition fighting forces—including the Omari Brigades, Youth of Sunnah Brigade, and Yarmouk Army— of the new strategy during a meeting January 8 in Amman.
“The goal of the meeting was to inform the armed groups of MOC’s new direction, the schedule for the coming period, and the types of support that [foreign backers] would provide the militants through the operations room,” security sources told the pro-Damascus newspaper in an article published Wednesday morning.
The sources added that the FSA-linked groups were told by Jordanian, US and British intelligence officials to “stop operations against the Syrian army and avoid periphery battles,” in reference to intermittent rounds of fighting between the rebels and ISIS-affiliated groups in southern Syria.
Instead, the Southern Front factions present in the Amman meeting—as well as the allied Army of Free Tribes group backed by Jordan—were instructed to concentrate on fighting both the Al-Nusra Front and Islamic Muthana Movement, which is close to the Al-Qaeda affiliate.
“The decision to liquidate the jihadists in the south has been taken,” the newspaper’s sources claimed.
The Amman meeting, as depicted by Al-Akbhar, would serve as the final blow to the Southern Front’s increasingly struggling efforts to fight regime forces in the Daraa Province.
The FSA-linked coalition had notched a series of stunning successes against government troops in the spring of 2015, however its campaigns ground down in the summer after the failure of the “Southern Storm” offensive to seize the provincial capital Daraa.
Reports began to emerge in September that the MOC had scaled back its support for the coalition, while rebels started complaining about a lack of assistance as their military successes dried up.
MOC promises new aid for new mission
Al-Akhbar claimed that the foreign powers operating the MOC promised rebels renewed aid in return for them agreeing to change tracks and launch a major campaign against Nusra.
“Each faction that joins the campaign will receive five tanks with full training for their crews as well as other incentives related to salaries and armament,” sources told the pro-Hezbollah daily.
The rebel leaders present in the Amman meeting all agreed to the MOC’s new plan, except the Youth of Sunnah Brigade chief, who eventually consented following further guarantees of support.
According to Al-Akhbar, the rebels were also promised training in a US-prepared base that will be staffed by military experts from Britain, Jordan and other Western states.
The MOC’s alleged decision comes within the context of “warming ties” between Amman and Moscow following Russia’s aerial intervention on behalf of the Bashar al-Assad regime.
On October 23, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov announced in Vienna that his country and Amman had agreed to coordinate military actions in Syria with a “special working mechanism” based in the Jordanian capital.
A month later, Jordanian King Abdullah II met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in the Russian capital during a visit in which he said that the “only way of finding a political solution in Syria is with the strong role that both [Putin] and Russia play.”
Jordan was also tasked in November by Washington and Moscow with formulating a list of terrorist groups in the war-torn country that would be the target of mutually agreed upon airstrikes by the rival powers currently intervening in the conflict.
An unnamed source in the FSA’s Southern Front told Alaraby Aljadeed that coordination between the two countries would not bode well for rebels in the Daraa province.
“The Southern Front have been aware that the Jordanian authorities are in contact with Russia and possibly the Assad regime to coordinate some issues. But the [implementation] of these contracts may signal the start of a new phase, which could have negative implications,” he said in an interview with the London-based newspaper.
In a further sign that Jordan was shifting stances regarding the course of fighting in Daraa, Syrian National Security Bureau chief Ali Mamlouk allegedly recently visited Amman to discuss the border region.
Al-Quds al-Arabi reported in November that Mamlouk had met with high-ranking officials in Amman during his “important and secret” trip to discuss potential security issues.
The newspaper did not go into detail on what specific matters the Bashar al-Assad regime’s pointman broached, however it said they were related “by necessity” to southern Syria.
Has Jordan Acquiesced to Assad Regime Offensive in Southern Syria?
By Osama Al Sharif | Jan 12, 2016
Jordan is yet to react publicly to a fresh land assault by Syrian regime forces, backed by Hezbollah and Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps fighters, against rebel-held towns in southern Syria. The land campaign was launched on December 28 with air support from Russian jets, and has been intensifying since. The governorate of Dara’a, and in particular the strategic town of Sheikh al-Maskeen, has been bombed by the Russian air force on a daily basis since the beginning of the year, in a bid to recapture territories from opposition forces in the south, along borders with Jordan, and in the southwest, close to the cease-fire lines with Israel.
The recent campaign aims at strengthening the bargaining position of the Damascus regime, and its Russian and Iranian allies, ahead of planned negotiations between the government and the opposition later this month.
Russia’s involvement in the campaign has raised questions about an earlier ‘understanding’ reached between King Abdullah of Jordan and President Vladimir Putin not to change the status quo in the south of Syria. The king had met Putin in Moscow on November 25, where it was reported that an agreement with the Kremlin was reached a month earlier to ensure “Russian bombing of targets in southern Syria, which borders the country, does not target Western-backed rebels known as the Southern Front—a grouping it supports as a buffer against the spread of hardline Islamist groups.”
That understanding was dubbed by Jordanian political analyst Mohammad Abu Rumman “a gentleman’s agreement.” He told this author that, according to that deal, Jordan had suspended the work of the Military Operations Command (MOC), an operations room staffed by Arab and Western military forces, including the United States, and “forced its biggest ally, the Southern Front, to halt all military actions.”
The Southern Front, which is largely made up of Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters and other groups, including elements of Jabhat al-Nusra, had managed to push government forces back at least 30 miles to the north. Jordan has managed to build good working relations with the Southern Front in a bid to stem the flow of Syrian refugees and to create a buffer zone between the kingdom and Islamic State militants, also known as ISIS or Daesh.
The recent conflagration in Syria’s south may have triggered a fresh wave of refugees who are now stranded along the Jordan-Syria borders. Jordan’s State Minister for Information Mohammad al-Momani told AFP on January 11 that at least 16,000 Syrian refugees are now in make-shift camps near the border with Syria. Jordan has been criticized for not facilitating the passage of refugees, claiming that they have to go through security screening first.
Abu Rumman said that there are grounds for Jordan’s concerns regarding the latest military offensive in Dara’a. “There is clearly an Iranian-backed scheme to control southern Syria or at least the Houran plains, which could result in the fleeing of one million Syrians to Jordan,” he said. “Clearly this is a bold challenge to Jordan’s national security.” He added that Jordan’s silence reflects the state of confusion at the decision-making level.
But Sultan Hattab, a Jordanian political commentator, disagrees. He said that Jordan’s lack of response means that the kingdom has no problem with the government forces taking over the southern region. He said that “Jordan wants a safe zone in southern Syria and if the Syrian regime takes over then that goal will be met.” He added that such a development might even allow Syrian refugees in Jordan—numbering more than 1.5 million—to begin to return to Dara’a. “Jordan and Russia are coordinating and Amman must have been informed about the latest campaign,” Hattab said. The Russian intervention in Syria has changed Jordan’s perspective on developments inside that country, he added.
Fahd al-Khitan, a Jordanian political analyst, agreed with Hattab that Jordan and Russia are coordinating militarily, adding that Amman and Moscow “are in agreement over the future of southern Syria.” In his view, Jordan has no problem with the return of the regime to the south since “this could result in reconciliation between Amman and Damascus under Russian auspices.”Khitan added that Jordan must have received guarantees from Russia regarding possible changes in the balance of power in southern Syria.
But in spite of weeks of heavy bombing by Russia and bloody confrontations in Sheikh al-Maskeen, which lies on the Damascus-Amman highway, regime forces have not managed to expel opposition fighters or recapture the town. A spokesman for the Southern Front’s Seif al-Sham Brigades told the Financial Times on January 7 that southern Syria “was one of their last cards (MOC), the one area where there was still a functioning relationship between the rebels and the international community.”
Jordanian military expert Mazen al-Qadi blamed the Americans for “lacking a clear vision on Syria,” which has allowed the Russians to change the reality in southern Syria. He told the author that Jordan has managed its borders with Syria as best as it could—preventing the conflict from spreading into the kingdom and hosting hundreds of thousands of refugees at the same time. “But with the weakening of the U.S. position, which resulted in Washington halting weapons supplies from reaching the FSA, Jordan had to cope with such developments,” Qadi said. He said that the “rules of the game” have changed in Syria and it is Russia that is dictating the new rules.
The United States has not commented on the Russian-backed military offensive in southern Syria. King Abdullah, who is in Washington this week, has met with defense officials but news reports did not say if the latest developments in the south were discussed.
Abu Rumman said that Jordan’s perceptions of various aspects of the Syrian conflict have been pragmatic. “In all its dealings with the regime and some opposition groups, Amman maintained flexible relationships,” he said. “But all along it has kept a safety margin regarding its interests in southern Syria through alliances and understandings with the local community and the FSA. Now, with the latest offensives, such alliances and understandings are being tested,” he said.