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Michael Jansen: The decline of Southern Front
July 02, 2018
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Exclusive to The Gulf Today

If a ceasefire agreement is not reached soon between the Syrian government and the Southern Front alliance of insurgent factions, one constituent faction after another will seek separate “reconciliations” with Damascus. Under such deals, fighters surrender their weapons, accept amnesty and permit the entry of Syrian troops into their towns or villages.

On Saturday at least eight opted for ceasefires under “reconciliation” deals while Southern Front officers haggled with Russian military men over the terms of a truce.

Jordan has been brokering talks between Moscow and the insurgents with the aim of reaching an end to the conflict in the south. Insurgents have, reportedly, said they would surrender their weapons if they are permitted to remain in Deraa city, their villages and homes. Fighters, who are mainly local men, refuse to be relocated, arguing, rightly, that areas where they could go are held by radical fundamentalists.

If talks fail, the Syrian army, backed by Russian airpower, will continue its offensive, town by town and village by village, until local commanders surrender. By following this procedure, Damascus divides the Southern Front into constituents and weakens the Front as a whole.  In spite of ongoing negotiations for a truce, at least 160,000 people in contested areas have fled and taken refuge along the Jordanian border or arrived at an established refugee camp near the Golan ceasefire lines with Israel. Neither Jordan nor Israel are prepared give refuge to displaced Syrians.

The Syrian army is following a successful strategy adopted in the campaign in Eastern Ghouta, recaptured from four insurgent groups in April after inflicting considerable suffering on civilians. Ultimately, the armed groups had no option but to surrender.

Several thousand fighters and their families were transported by bus to north-west Idlib province held by radical fundamentalist factions or Turkish-occupied Afrin or Jarablus. 

In recent days, some evacuees have returned to Eastern Ghouta.  

The Southern Front, consisting of 54 factions, had, until last year, been sustained by US and allied money and advised by US and Arab officers based at the now-inactive Military Operations Centre based in Jordan.

Although loosely affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) since early 2014, Southern Front factions had no unified command and control and no pretence of acting as an army. The Front has declined since May 2015 after the failure of its offensive to seize the northern and eastern districts of Deraa province from government control. During the summer of 2016, more than 200 Front fighters defected to al-Qaeda’s Jabhat Fatah al-Sham (formerly Jabhat al-Nusra and now Hay’at Tahrir al-Sham) and Ahrar al-Sham, a second radical faction.

In 2017, following fitful fighting, the US, Russia and Jordan brokered a ceasefire between the Southern Front and the Syrian army.

The truce lasted until Damascus had restored its control over Eastern Ghouta and insurgent-held pockets south of the capital.  Deraa was always next on the army’s agenda because it is a softer option than the north where Turkey protects insurgents holding Idlib, the district of Afrin in Aleppo province, the Turkish-occupied triangle around Jarablus and al-Bab, the US-Turkish controlled town of Manbij and the vast swathe of territory in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces held by US-backed Kurdish forces.

First signs of dissidence within the Southern Front emerged when several insurgent factions joined the Syrian army in an operation against Daesh and Nusra-Tahrir-held pockets of territory.

The Syrian army advanced under Russian and Syrian aircover despite a US warning that this would have  “serious repercussions.”  However, so far, the “repercussions” have not materialised and Washington has told the Southern Front that it must not expect US intervention although, apparently, financial aid continues to flow to Front factions.

Analysts argue that Washington may have given a green light to the Syrian army’s southern offensive.  Writing in The Independent, Robert Fisk holds that the US has pulled “the carpet from beneath another set of allies,” the first being the Kurds in Afrin. He calls this reversal “a turning point” in the Syrian war. He points out that FSA factions have handed over their weapons to Nusra-Tahrir and that the area has been under its actual control for some time. He suggests a deal could involve return to the “status quo” before the war: control of the Deraa and Quneitra provinces by the Syrian government which did not permit cross-border attacks on the occupied Syrian Golan after 1983.

The Israelis have threatened to create a 40-kilometre “buffer zone” defended by Nusra-Tahrir and other fundamentalist factions. If Israel carries out this threat, there is likely to be never-ending warfare in this region as there was in south Lebanon from 1978-2000, when Hizbollah forced Israel to withdraw its army and Lebanese surrogates from the region.

Israel has not, so far, become embroiled in the fighting but has fired missiles at various Syrian targets allegedly related to Hizbollah or Iran. Israel could take more serious action if Damascus’ allies, Hizbollah and Iran-deployed Shia militiamen move into the area adjacent to the Golan Heights, occupied by Israel in 1967.  Last week it was reported that there has been an agreement not to provoke Israel by sending Shia fighters into the zone which has been under the control of fighters from al-Qaeda’s Nusra-Tahrir who have been armed, paid and sustained by Israel for several years.

While Donald Trump – who changes his mind every other hour – has pledged to pull US forces out of Syria no later than the end of the year, the Pentagon disagrees, and Russia remains unconvinced.  Trump’s intentions may be clarified when he meets Russian President Vladimir Putin on July 16th in Helsinki.

Meanwhile, Trump remains committed to his March decision to freeze $200 million allocated to reconstruction in Raqqa, the northern Syrian town 99 per cent destroyed by US and allied bombing during its “liberation” from Daesh.  Efforts to clear mines and rubble and restore water and electricity to the city have been put on hold by Trump’s freeze.  Other potential donors are in wait-and-see mode while local people on the ground in Raqqa and nearby villages suffer destitution and homelessness without hope of regaining lives stolen first by Daesh and then by the US.


___________________________________________

The author, a well-respected observer of Middle East
affairs, has three books on the Arab-Israeli conflict

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