Rebels of southern Syria vow to unite and continue war

Will the Syrian rebels in the south share the same fate of the resistance groups in Aleppo? An in-depth look at the current and unsteady state of the southern front.

December 18, 2016 19:51
Syrian rebels prepare for fighting in Syria

Syrian rebels prepare for fighting in Syria . (photo credit: REUTERS/STRINGER)

“The revolution in the south is continuing, but the situation is tough,” says Abo Omar Algolany, a spokesman for the rebels in southern Syria. In recent months, as the Syrian regime in Damascus has successfully forced the rebels from most of Aleppo in the north, the south has been relatively quiet. A statement posted on the Facebook page of the Revolutionary Command Council in Quneitra and the Syrian Golan and signed by local Syrian rebels, condemned the “Assad regime and its allies from Russia, and the sectarian terrorist militias controlled by Iran.”

These are the “worst massacres the world had ever witnessed against civilians,” the statement reads. “We call urgently for all international and humanitarian organizations, especially UN to intervene and halt this violence.”

Southern Syria has played an important role in opposition to the Assad government. Protests in southern city of Deraa in March 2011 were met by violence and shooting of protesters which helped galvanize the rebellion. Since late 2015 however, the situation in the south has been relatively stable. The regime controls a long finger of countryside from Damascus to Deraa, close to the Jordanian border. The rebels control the area around that finger, including most of the area along the Golan Heights. A tiny pocket of Islamic State is also located along the Golan border in the South. To the northeast the regime has been able to reconquer areas around Damascus.

In an online interview with the The Jerusalem Post, a spokesman for the rebels said that the local units are demanding more unity from the command of the Free Syrian Army in the continuing fight against Bashar Assad. “We also call on Arab countries, led by Qatar and Saudi Arabia to continue to support the rebels to release all Syrian territory and access Damascus, to retake the maximum space from the hands of Assad’s sectarian militias.”
Syrian Civil War: The battle for Aleppo, Syria

The term “sectarian” in this context often refers to Shia militias, including Hezbollah and Shia units from Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan who support Assad and play a central role in the war. The Free Syrian Army, as opposed to the Islamist groups such as Nusra Front or Ahrar al-Sham, are nominally secular. He argues that the intervention of the Russians has been the main problem since the fall of 2015. He notes that even when Assad had the support of Iran and Hezbollah, the rebels were able to push the government forces back. “But with the entry of the Russian military machine in the war, especially warplanes and advanced bombs, there has been clear progress.”

Algolany blames the US administration and President Barack Obama for failing to support the Syrian revolution adequately. “It was US policy to prevent any state befriending the Syrian people and intervening militarily in favor of the rebels, and this contributed indirectly to supporting the Assad regime.” The central issue for the rebels was access to “sophisticated weapons.” By this he refers to the constant complaint that they did not receive anti-aircraft missiles.

However it isn’t clear to the rebels if the next US administration will be more helpful. “Donald Trump during the election campaign made statements in favor of the Syrian regime and Bashar Assad,” says the spokesman.

“We haven’t seen any change on the ground for the moment we hope that he will be supportive of the Syrian revolution and demands of the people for freedom and the overthrow of Assad and his terrorist dictatorship. [Assad] has killed civilians and innocent people for more than six years.”

The fall of Aleppo has impacted the rebellion symbolically. Aleppo was Syria’s largest city by population before the war, and it has been the heart of the struggle against Assad for years. “Unfortunately the fall of Aleppo and the massacres occurring at the hands of the sectarian militias will adversely affect the morale of the Syrian people, and not just in the South.”

There are large numbers of refugees fleeing other parts of Syria for the South, some of the more than a million Syrians who have fled toward Jordan, but some sought to stay in Syria. “Internally displaced people face a very difficult time. The greatest need is tents and wooden houses and portable caravans because the current tents are old and worn or damaged and doesn’t help them during the harsh winter. Rainwater enters into them,” he said.

The spokesman says that the aid coming from Jordan does not help enough, especially in the area near Quneitra on the Golan border, where he says there is a “dire need” of hospital and medical care. “The opening of border crossings with the outside world allows citizens to enter and exist, such as is happening in Turkey and northern Syria. The Syrian rebels don’t want to critique the Jordanian government, which has been supportive, but they clearly feel pressure needs to be relieved for the refugees to have an opportunity to go abroad.

The Jordanian government has supported informal localized cease-fires between the rebels and the regime that has kept the area relatively quiet for most of the past year, especially in Deraa which is close to Jordan and where the Hashemite kingdom fears spillover from the conflict.

In terms of practical support, the rebels still hold out hope for a no-fly zone to protect civilians from Assad’s air force. “When this legitimate demand is met, the international community must shoulder its burden to protect innocent civilians and stop the Assad regime committing massacres against them.” The spokesman would not comment on the issue of Israel accepting refugees or any role for Israel. However, Israel and the rebels share a common enemy in Hezbollah and Iran, an issue exposed by the two recent air strikes on Damascus area that Hezbollah blamed on Israel. According to various reports, limited numbers of Syrians have received treatment in Israeli hospitals over the course of the war.

Another well-placed source with the rebels says that the fighters in the south have continually tried to push toward Damascus on the Quneitra front but have been stopped by Assad’s forces. He says Druse militias who support the government have helped stymie any progress. In addition the international coalition against ISIS also prods the Syrian rebels to fight ISIS, rather than the regime, seeing ISIS as a higher priority.

This source argues that one of the main positives the Syrian rebels in the south have compared to the north is they have a relatively unified command and fewer Islamist groups. They are well-equipped but lack anti-aircraft weapons.

After almost six years of war the rebels see the prospect of facing a government offensive in the coming year and they are concerned that the international support that failed to materialize for Aleppo will fail them as well.

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