What is the Significance of the Fight in Southern Syria?

On February 12, rebel groups launched an offensive named Almawt Wala al-Muzaleh [Death Rather than Humiliation] targeting regime-controlled areas in Daraa. The ongoing operation is reportedly an attempt to prevent pro-Syrian regime troops from gaining control of a strategic border crossing with Jordan. The attack — which followed a long period of decline in fighting since mid 2015 — came as a surprise not only to the Syrian regime but also to the rebel allies, namely Jordan. The latter, who reportedly opposed the offensive, was not able to stop it.

Questions, therefore, were raised about the extent of Jordan’s influence over its rebel allies in order to de-escalate armed clashes in the south. The attack also elevated worries about the increased cooperation between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and radical groups such as Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, the rebranded former al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front and part of a newly formed alliance known as Hayʼat Taḥrir al-Sham [Levant Liberation Committee].

The anti-regime offensive is led by al-bonyan al-marsous [a solid structure] operation room which is supported by 36 rebel groups. The groups are drawn from both FSA and members of Hayʼat Taḥrir al-Sham. The aim of the operation is to capture the al-Manshiyya neighborhood of Daraa al-Balad in order to prevent the regime from seizing Daraa Border Crossing [commonly referred to as the al-Jamrak Crossing]. The clashes allowed rebel groups to capture a large scale of the targeted al-Manshiyya neighborhood. Russian jets carried out, in response, an intensive bombing campaign on rebel- held areas in Daraa. The clashes and airstrikes are some of the fiercest Daraa has seen since Russia intervened in the conflict in September 2015. The casualty numbers are still unclear, but the U.K.-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitor reported that at least 50 people from both sides have been killed in the first three days of the offensive. Pro-government forces control the majority of Daraa’s northern and western neighborhoods, and opposition groups control areas in the south and east.

Jordan has been able to use its influence and connections to spare Daraa the devastation wreaked by the Syrian regime and Russia in other parts of the country. According to Félix Legrand, an independent Syria researcher, the Jordanian authorities have been pushing since mid 2015 for de-escalation of the fight against the Assad regime. Jordan was also able to reach with Russia in late 2015 what was described by local observers as a “gentleman’s agreement” to spare southern Syria military strikes. The strategy aims to redeploy rebel forces to radical groups and keep them away from its border. It also aims to control the flow of Syrian refugees by reducing the level of violence in the border areas. Jordan has been able to keep rebels at bay by controlling the support channeled through its border to Syria by the Jordan-based military operations center (MOC), a joint operation created by the ‘Friends of Syria’ in 2013 to coordinate the provision of support to vetted rebel groups.

The increased threats facing rebel groups and the strategic importance of the crossing led a strategy shift towards their enemies as well as allies. Jordan’s “gentleman agreement” with both the regime and Russia, did stop the latter from pursuing its strategy to slowly advance towards Daraa crossing point. According to locals, the regime did not at all stop from trying to capture new territories. The lack of a Jordan-led strategy to stop the regime advances pushed rebel groups to defend themselves by military means. “We have been unsuccessfully discussing different strategies with Jordan to stop the regime. They are not able to convince the regime to stay away nor they are allowing us to fight back. We had to make a tough call and go against their commands,” said a FSA commander in al-Bonyan al-Marsous operation who spoke over WhatsApp, on condition of anonymity.

The offensive could also be seen as a way to establish facts on the ground and prevent any discreet deal between Jordan and the Syrian regime. Journalist Ahmed al-Hourani wrote about concerns over a shift in Jordan’s policy towards the Syrian regime. He referred to statements by Jordanian officials who did not object to allowing the Syrian regime to restore its control over border crossings. Such a step could help restore relations with the Syrian regime. The recent fall of Aleppo in December 2016, which was widely perceived to be done with the approval of the rebels backer Turkey, makes such concerns more realistic. Allowing the regime to control Daraa border-crossing, which has been under rebel control since October 2013 will, however, halt the flow of weapons and manpower supplied to rebels. It can also sever the rebel-held areas in two, east and west of the city, which makes besieging them easier.

The high stakes involved pushed many rebel groups across the ideological spectrum to work together in order to secure their positions. It pushed them to adopt a more proactive strategy. “The ongoing battle, unlike previous ones, is not defensive. We took the decision to attack regime positions in al-Manshiyya in order to have the upper hand and secure our areas,” said the FSA leader.

It is still not clear how things might develop in the south and how it will impact the relationship between Jordan and rebel groups. The total dependence of rebel groups on support channeled through Jordan, however, forces the former to align with Jordan’s policies. Such differences between these allies, which are tactical rather than strategic, might become more frequent in absence of a clear Jordan-led strategy to keep the regime in check in the south. The scale and frequency of such differences will largely shape the leeway for cooperation between the FSA and hardliners.

Haid Haid  is a Syrian columnist, researcher, and Chatham House Associate Fellow who focuses on security policy, conflict studies, and Kurdish and Islamist movements. He tweets @HaidHaid22

Image: Photo: A Free Syrian Army fighter stands near a weapon before firing towards forces loyal to Syria's president Bashar al-Assad in Daraa, Syria, October 16, 2015. REUTERS/Alaa Al-Faqir