On Saturday, activists said Syria’s army began a counteroffensive against rebels in Deraa, using surface-to-surface missiles and carrying out air strikes. The violence comes as the government launched a bid to reclaim key positions in western Deraa that had, in recent weeks, been seized by rebel factions.
The province, which shares a border with both Jordan and Israel’s Golan Heights, is also near Damascus, making it a key strategic point for any party hoping to claim victory in the country’s mountainous south. The timing of the government offensive triggered speculation that it has been timed to an increase in tensions between the local Free Syrian Army and Jabhat al-Nusra, al-Qaida’s Syrian arm.
Faysal Itani, a fellow at the Atlantic Council who studies the battle for Syria’s southern region and the conflict’s spillover into Lebanon, weighs in on the fight.
Syria Deeply: Is the offensive pegged to increased inter-rebel tensions, or are there other factors behind it?
Faysal Itani: I’m not sure that’s the reason for the timing. What the government seems to be doing is concentrating on Nawa, a rebel-held town that connects Quneitra and Deraa: these are two areas where the rebels have had some successes, and there’s an area [between] that links them. I haven’t seen an all-out ground assault, but the government is certainly hitting them.
I don’t know if it’s taking advantage of infighting. The tensions haven’t blown up into an outright confrontation, and I don’t think it takes precedence against regime efforts in the south which have been quite successful and which they’ve touted to their constituents as part of “the promise” of winning the war.
I think it’s driven by military necessity: the proximity of this geography to Damascus, and the fact that it could emerge as a platform for the rebels to carry out a concerted effort [in attacks on Damascus and a push further into the south] with the help of the Saudis and Qataris. So it’s driven by strategic necessity.
The other increased government offenses happening in the north around Aleppo and Deir Ezzor, that’s more like what you’re saying: exploiting the rebel infighting to some success, particularly in Aleppo.
Syria Deeply: How would you describe what’s happening in the south right now?
Itani: What I find interesting about the south today is the dynamic between the FSA and Nusra, and whether or not that’s going to escalate into an all out confrontation; neither side wants or can afford it.
There’s also the issue of the recent manifesto released by the Islamic Front (IF). Essentially what they’ve done is release a statement emphatically rejecting extremism and the foreign fighters, and calling for multiethnic fighters. This is aimed at the outside, and at potential supporters, and Nusra is not very happy with it.
The IF is very active around Damascus and in the south. If they do take this direction, they place themselves on a collision course with Nusra. But it’s too soon to tell. It depends on the sort of organization Nusra wants to be, and what its current priorities are. Are they more into increasing their fighting with the regime, or developing themselves as an Islamist political project?
The IF is a very important coalition of fighting groups. Numerically they’re still in absolute numbers the largest [rebel faction in the south]. But six months ago we were saying, these guys are going to spearhead [against] the uprising from Iran, and that right now that sounds like an exaggeration. The relationship between them, the FSA and Nusra has balanced itself a bit more.
East of Deraa, you run into Druze territory, which is mostly quiet. The Druze don’t have to contend with a group like ISIS that’s going to show up and attack them on the grounds that they’re infidels, like they do in the north.
Then you have Deraa and the Jordanian border, one of the key fronts, and north of that the Quneitra flank of the road to Damascus. Today, the regime is pretty heavily concentrated there. There’s still a regular exchange of territory [between the government and the rebels]. They’re in some degree of trouble, but they’re certainly not at risk of imminent collapse.