Eight Islamist groups active near Israel’s border in southern Syria have united into one bloc as the country’s Druse come under increasing pressure.According to a report on the website Alsouria.net over the weekend, eight Islamist factions announced the formation of Jaish al-Fatah, or the Army of Conquest, in southern Syria in order to face the Syrian regime.This decision follows the formation of a similarly named alliance in the north, which was announced in March and includes al-Qaida’s Nusra Front and Ahrar al-Sham. The name is a reference to conquests that spread Islam across the Middle East starting in the seventh century.
A separate, Western-backed alliance known as the Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army (FSA) is still strong in southwestern Syria. Although it controls comparatively little territory, its fighters maintain an important foothold near the borders with Jordan and Israel.Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum who closely follows Islamist opposition groups in Syria and Iraq, told The Jerusalem Post that the number of fighters is difficult to measure, although Jaish al-Fatah “definitely seems like a competitor for influence versus the Southern Front.”Joel Parker, a researcher on Syria at the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, told the Post: “The umbrella formation of an Islamist army similar to the one in Idlib, and connected no doubt, is a tactical alliance meant to strengthen the Islamist unity in the south.”Parker continued by saying that the Islamists “probably know that the Free Syrian Army elements in the south are tied more closely to the West than in other parts of the country, and are thus not going to ally with Islamists, no matter how moderate they seem.”However, he said, it is important to note that “the Islamist alliance clearly tried to avoid sectarian language in their announcement, and secondly, that they excluded all the groups that have not been crystal clear about their opposition to the Islamic State.”Mendi Safadi, an Israeli Druse who has served as chief of staff for Deputy Regional Cooperation Minister Ayoub Kara and has traveled in the region to meet with Syrian opposition activists, told the Post that sources affiliated with the FSA had confirmed the union of Islamist forces.The union, he said, was geared more toward improving logistics, and it has been estimated that the FSA forces outnumber the Islamist faction.“The Islamists are stronger in weaponry, but the FSA has more soldiers,” Safadi said, referring to southern Syria.As for the Druse, he told the Post that the regime of President Bashar Assad had not sent them supplies for the past three days because the regime “does not care about the Druse,” as it is busy consolidating its position in its Alawite stronghold in the coastal area of Latakia.Druse are not motivated to send their sons to fight for Assad’s army partly because he sends them to other fronts in the country, and not to the lines near Druse areas, he continued.Safadi estimates that Nusra Front is afraid of taking Hader, a predominantly Druse village near the border with Israel, because it fears a reaction from the Jewish state.Kara, meanwhile, has said that if he deemed it necessary, he would go himself to fight Islamic State, and was sure that the Druse would support him.As for the FSA, it is reported that it has an agreement with the Druse whereby they will not support Assad in return for protection.The Middle East Forum’s Tamimi confirmed that there had been previous Southern Front proclamations of outreach efforts to the Druse, but he did not see much evidence of their impact. He noted that the siege of Hader was now one of the main fighting fronts, adding that many of its residents had died fighting for the Syrian army.He also pointed out that many reports of the conflict overlook the great impact on the community of the killing of 20 Druse in the northern province of Idlib, as well as forced conversions to Islam by the Nusra Front.“Despite other rebel groups claiming they would protect the Druse, they have done nothing about the forced conversions, so non-sectarian public statements won’t mean much as long as Nusra is perceived as an important part of the overall rebellion,” he said.Reuters contributed to this report.
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