While moderate, U.S.-backed brigades struggle against ISIS and al-Qaida in northern Syria, analysts say a show of rebel unity in the south has led to a surge in momentum there.
“Rebel alliances show greater cohesion in this zone, as well as greater cooperation with Jabhat al-Nusra, while the regime is showing signs of severe manpower shortage,” the Institute for the Study of War writes in a recent report.
“Successful rebel cooperation in Qunteitra, Deraa and Damascus has facilitated significant rebel inroads into Damascus, potentially challenging vital regime supply lines and increasing pressure on regime strongholds,” the report says.
Theodore Bell, analyst at the Institute for the Study of War and author of the report, spoke to Syria Deeply about the how the emergence of a stronger, unified opposition in the south might threaten the regime in Damascus.
Syria Deeply: How have rebel alliances taken shape in southern Syria?
Bell: There are a couple ways that they are taking shape. If you look at Damascus in the months of June and August, especially the besieged suburbs of eastern Ghouta, you saw formal alliances established. This happens across Syria quite frequently – you see announcements by a rebel group claiming it is aligned with another rebel group. Sometimes a new umbrella organization is established. In eastern Ghouta, the Eastern Ghouta Unified Court House, a joint governing body, was established this summer between various more Islamist, extremist groups.
There are also temporary alliances of convenience. There were several offenses that rebel groups launched in cooperation with each other in southern Syria. You’ll see an announcement of a named offensive or battle with a list of participants saying they are cooperating to see a certain objective – they can be less enduring than a formal, umbrella organization, but they work to great effect.
Syria Deeply: How has that changed the fight against the regime in Damascus and southern Syria?
Bell: Damascus and southern Syria are slightly different cases. Rebels in southern Syria have been more successful than Damascus, where there has been a push back and forth between rebels and regime forces. I couldn’t say with certainty that rebel cooperation in Damascus had succeeded in the rebel’s goal of breaking the sieges.
The rebels in southern Syria have seen been successful and seen concerted gains, especially in the last week. They have announced their intention to take certain cities and have managed to hold them.
There were reports last week of regime counteroffensive of troops and reinforcement, whether that is regular army or National Defense Forces, being sent south and being stopped in their tracks and forced back by rebel forces.
What’s been remarkable in the south is that the regime has consistently failed to retake ground from the rebels. They still maintain a presence in Deraa city, but have lost a couple border crossings. The strategic crossing on the M5 highway, linking Damascus to Amman, is under threat from the FSA-affiliated southern front. Severing regime supply lines north on the M5 highway would complicate the regime’s ability to resupply its forces in Homs, Hama, Idlib and Aleppo.
If rebels in Quneitra and Deraa successfully connect the southern front with eastern Ghouta and encircle the capital along the southeast, the regime will be forced to redouble its efforts to ensure Damascus is not cut off from the rest of the country.
Syria Deeply: What counteroffensive tactics is the regime using to regain ground?
Bell: The regime has launched counteroffensives that have failed, resulting in ensuing regime frustration, which manifests itself in the execution of Syrian Arab Army officers and defections of generals because they’re afraid they are going to be executed or penalized.
There was a report of the president sending the Minister of Defense south to personally oversee a counteroffensive after Syrian Arab Army officers were executed as punishment for the strategic loss of Tel-al Hara in the south.
When the regime faces a major setback, they frequently lash out with air power, which can take the form of surface-to-surface scud missiles etc. We’ve seen barrel bombs with chlorine gas canisters in them in Damascus, reports of at least three chlorine gas attacks on a very consistent north-south axis along supply lines, responding to rebel advances.
Syria Deeply: How does the battle in southern Syria – rebels vs. the regime – dovetail with the somewhat different fight in the north, against ISIS?
Bell: In the south you are seeing greater unity, or unity to greater effect between the various FSA-affiliated brigades: The Syrian Revolutionary Front, the Southern Front, various other alliances, and their cooperation (they may deny it) with Jabhat al-Nusra.
In the north, it is more fractious, especially in the last two weeks when the fighting between Jabhat al Nusra and the FSA brigades in Idlib. It started out as a localized dispute and then Jabhat al Nusra maybe saw an opportunity to take ground and push rebels out.
The Southern Front is distinct now in how the unity between rebel groups has worked to good affect, where as in other parts of the country tensions are flaring – FSA brigades have turned on each other, Jabhat al Nusra has taken ground from the rebels, and it remains to be seen if this is working to the regime’s advantage.
Syria Deeply: What is the state of the fight, in and around Damascus?
Bell: Rebels have recently made gains in Damascus through two separate campaigns to obstruct regime supply lines north and south of the city. Their primary objective is likely to break the regime’s siege of rebel held eastern and western Ghouta.
There is a push northward to Damascus, and the rebels have conquered most of Quneitra province and are taking more ground in Deraa province, south and southeast of the capital.
The rebels are present in the suburbs in the east and northeast of Damascus where there have been temporary truces signed between the regime and certain rebel forces.The regime has managed to encircle the rebels, taking three significant neighborhoods this summer, and they have managed to encroach into the besieged suburbs.
If the rebels were to connect the southern front with and eastern front, Damascus would be surrounded from the north all the way to the southwest, disconnecting it from most of the country.
To connect the southern front with eastern Ghouta, rebels will need to break through the regime strongholds of Dukhaniyya, Jarmana, and Mleiha – recent strategic gains that the regime will fight to protect
If there is somewhere in Damascus where the regime is going to fight to the death for, it is access to those supply lines and Damascus airport and the Sayeda Zeinab shrine – what is believed to be a major Iranian support presence to the regime.
Syria Deeply: In recent weeks, loyalist areas along Syria’s coast have demonstrated against the regime and its wartime policies. Does that point to a weakening of the government’s support base?
Bell: We are seeing reports of demonstrations in Latakia, Tartous and Homs, where the regime has enjoyed support, which indicates that its support base is feeling the pressure of the war. Economic issues like gas shortages have fueled these demonstrations, with people worried about gas and electricity to power their homes now that winter is approaching.
Conscription campaigns launched in regime support bases in the northwest on the coast and throughout Syria have also led to demonstrations and clashes between regime forces and citizens forcibly conscripted into the military. There certainly is an emerging manpower shortage for the regime, which is putting pressure on its support base that already feels frustrated by the disproportionate sacrifices it says it has made in the war.
The auxiliary forces (Lebanese Hezbollah fighters and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps advisers) are definitely still there and we assume because of their numbers and expertise will continue to play a role. The conscription campaigns have been putting Syrians into National Defense forces, a paramilitary unit Iran helped establish.
We’ve seen reports of Iranian and Afghan fighters in Aleppo fighting for the regime. There were reports of Cambodian fighters as well.
The structure of the Syrian regime is such that it can’t afford to alienate those power bases and the troops and commanders it draws from them.