Stalemates, defections and shifting alliances: Syria’s restive south at crossroads

AMMAN: Jabhat a-Nusra has withdrawn the bulk of its fighters from battles to drive Islamic State-linked forces from southern Syria in recent days, rebel and civilian sources tell Syria Direct, ending four months of coordination with US-backed rebels.

The reported withdrawal over the past two weeks follows more than four months of battles in southwest Daraa in which Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and the US-backed Southern Front fought a mutual enemy: IS-linked forces based near Syria’s southern borders with Israel and Jordan.

Jabhat a-Nusra has made no official statements announcing or confirming that it has scaled back participation in the battles, but two FSA commanders and one civilian source in the area independently told Syria Direct that Nusra withdrew forces.

In March of this year, alleged IS affiliate Liwa Shuhadaa al-Yarmouk launched a surprise offensive from its base in southwest Daraa’s Yarmouk Basin region. Attacking positions and towns held by the Southern Front and Islamist militias including Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham, LSY pushed roughly 7km to the east in a matter of weeks and linked its territory with that of ideologically similar brigade Harakat al-Muthanna.

In response, Jabhat a-Nusra, Ahrar a-Sham and the Southern Front launched a successful counteroffensive to initially halt and then roll back LSY gains.

In May, a weakened LSY merged with its idealogically similar allies in southwest Daraa and neighboring Quneitra to form Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed (JKW), named for the 7th-century Rashidun commander who led greatly outnumbered Muslim forces to victory over the Byzantine army in present-day southern Syria.

 A rebel fighter in Daraa city this past June. Photo courtesy of Nabaa Media Foundation.

After months of fighting, hundreds of fighters and dozens of civilians killed and thousands more displaced, the fight against JKW in southwest Daraa has petered out to a stalemate: daily shelling, with no major advances on the ground.

Now, Nusra appears to have lost interest in the fight, reportedly withdrawing the bulk of its fighters from fronts with JKW. Ahrar a-Sham’s fighters reportedly remain in place.

“Nusra withdrew large numbers of its forces,” citizen journalist Omar al-Jolani, who is currently near the frontlines with JKW, told Syria Direct. “It hasn’t completely withdrawn from the fighting, but no longer has any real numbers to speak of at the flashpoints with JKW.”

“Nusra has withdrawn from the ongoing battles against Jaish Khaled bin al-Waleed,” a Southern Front commander currently in Daraa province told Syria Direct late last week, requesting anonymity. “The FSA factions are displeased,” he added.

Why might Nusra be withdrawing its forces from the fight with LSY now?

With no official statements from Nusra, it is not possible to know for sure. However, Southern Front commanders and a civilian journalist who spoke to Syria Direct in recent days said they view the move as preparation by Nusra to open new fronts with the regime in Daraa in a bid to increase the group’s influence on the ground.

“If Nusra and Ahrar are able to open fronts against the regime and advance, this would increase their support base,” said al-Jolani. Both Nusra and Ahrar operate within the Southern Victory Army, modeled after the northern Syrian coalition of hardline Islamist groups.

While Nusra was once a considerable force on the ground in Daraa, months of fighting with LSY, a series of assassinations and the reported relocation of Nusra’s Daraa leadership to northern Syria earlier this year have reduced the faction’s manpower in southern Syria’s Daraa to mostly fighters from the province itself.

Despite its reportedly reduced numbers, Nusra “aims to have the final word in Daraa,” alleges the same Southern Front Commander. “It’s a serious attempt by Nusra to consolidate its position.”

‘A state of discontent’

Southern Front and Islamist factions alike in south Syria are facing calls by residents and—most recently—prominent clerics to refocus their efforts on regime forces after months of grinding battles with alleged IS affiliates.

Two weeks ago, a newly formed group of hardline Islamist scholars, including Nusra’s Abu Maria al-Qahtani and prominent Saudi cleric Dr. Abdallah al-Muhaysini issued a statement online calling on Daraa rebels to launch battles with the regime in order to draw attention away from battles in Aleppo and Outer Damascus.

“Take initiative in the few coming days to ignite the fronts and battles,” urged the mid-July statement, adding that “it is impermissible for any faction to respond to pressure from any internal or external party not to open the fronts,” alluding to a belief that foreign backers have instructed Southern Front rebels to primarily focus on fighting IS affiliates in Daraa rather than the regime. 

Salaries and weapons deliveries to the rebel Southern Front are coordinated by the secretive, Jordan-based Military Operations Command (MOC), led by regional and international backers, including the United States.

“For long months, we have been awaiting the battle of Daraa,” said Muhaysini in a separate message sent to Daraa rebels via WhatsApp and posted online last week. “History will bear witness: Either victory for the people of Daraa, or their betrayal of Darayya and Aleppo.”

It is not immediately clear how much sway external calls by religious scholars hold over Jabhat a-Nusra or other rebels in southern Syria. However, those calls coincide with a reported sense of frustration amongst civilians in the area after months without any major battles with regime forces.

“There’s a state of discontent among some residents,” citizen journalist al-Jolani told Syria Direct. “They’ve lost trust in the FSA after the failure of a number of their battles, in addition to the lawlessness in the area.”

“Civilians in the area are calling for a battle to be opened against the regime,” the anonymous Southern Front commander told Syria Direct. “Their main goal is to be rid of the regime forces.”

“If Nusra works against the regime, many fighters will join them.”

‘They’ll join those who pay the most’

Frustration over perceived Southern Front inaction against the regime coupled with financial hardship have reportedly driven hundreds of Southern Front fighters to defect and join Islamist brigades over the past two weeks.

“More than 200 personnel from the Southern Front joined Jabhat a-Nusra and Ahrar a-Sham in southern Syria” last week, one Southern Front commander told Syria Direct. A second SF commander as well as citizen journalist al-Jolani cited the same number of defections.

“The tepid fronts with the regime drove most of them to join Nusra and Ahrar,” said al-Jolani. He believes the number of defections could go up in coming days, “especially since there are reports circulating about Nusra and Ahrar reopening fronts with the regime in the area.”

“Some people who recently joined Ahrar and Nusra had abandoned their weapons, but have now joined up again,” said al-Jolani.

For many of those joining Islamist brigades, getting paid is as important as ideology or the desire to fight the regime.

Some Southern Front fighters “haven’t been paid in three months,” according to the second commander who Syria Direct spoke with this week, and who also requested anonymity.

The commander alleged that financial support from unnamed “operation rooms” has been delayed and salaries cut during that period, a claim that Syria Direct could not independently confirm.

“Fighters have children and families,” said the SF commander. “Their only ideology is to provide for them. They’ll join those who pay the most.”

“The Islamist brigades give attractive salaries,” he added, above the $50 a month paid to Southern Front fighters. “The pay doesn’t get cut off. That’s the incentive to join.”

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Ahmad al-Hourani

Ahmad was born in 1989 in Daraa province. He studied Arabic language in university but couldn't continue his studies due to the conflict. Ahmad moved to Jordan in 2016. He has done some reporting on the Syrian war but hopes to strengthen his foundation in journalism through the Syria Direct program.

Mahran Mohammed

Mahran holds a degree in Arabic literature from Damascus university. Originally from Daraa province, he was involved in the earliest peaceful demonstrations of the Syrian revolt revolt. In 2013, Mahran was injured in a regime attack and moved to Jordan. Mahran previously volunteered with Save the Children.