March 10, 2014

For months, a relative stalemate has held in southern Syria’s Daraa province. The Syrian government retains control of portions of Daraa city, as well as the north-south M-5 international highway connecting it with Damascus and a handful of towns along it.

Rebels, meanwhile, control the clear majority of the province to the east and west of Daraa city, but have been unable to cut the single regime supply road leading into it.

Last month, rebels announced major moves via YouTube, as activists and combatants formed a slew of umbrella organizations seeking to open a “Southern Front” in the conflict.

In western Daraa and Quneitra, Jabhat a-Nusra, the Islamic Front’s Ahrar a-Sham and seven others announced they would coordinate in a battle titled ‘We la tafaraqu,’ weeks after local Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups announced a battle entitled “Geneva of the Houran.”

The new formations come as reports circulate that Saudi Arabia is preparing to provide rebels with anti-aircraft devices known as Manpads, and that the U.S. will redouble its efforts to provide military support..

But thus far, our reporting indicates that none of the weapons has yet  arrived, nor have the new rebel formations been able to push the regime back in Daraa.

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Free Syrian Army battalions claimed to have destroyed a regime tank in a video posted online in late February. Photo courtesy of the Daraa Media Union.

Anwar al-Bardan is the commander of the Free Syrian Army’s Ahl a-Sunna Brigade in western Dara’a and Quneitra province. Here, he tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali why he believes rebels need stronger weaponry to advance, how the regime retains control of the most strategic positions in the province and why “things are different in the south.”

Q: Why have the rebels not advanced in Daraa?

Obviously the main reason is that no new weapons have arrived. The FSA has what are considered “individual weapons,” in addition to whatever they can capture from the regime’s forces.

The second reason is that the regime’s fortification of its bases makes it very difficult to penetrate them, despite the constant siege on all of them in the region. Also, don’t forget that that the regime continues to shell civilians and use barrel bombs against them.

Q: Why do you think that a number of brigades and squadrons have begun to join forces in Daraa and create all of these coalitions?

This is happening because there is a continuing demand for a unified leadership. Most groups throughout Syria are joining the Islamic Front or the Syrian Revolutionaries’ Front. However, things are different in the south, where there is a plan to create a unified southern front that includes areas in Damascus, Daraa, Quneitra and Sweidah. We are relying on the formation of this front, as it is the largest geographic base in Syria and we hope that there will be a unified military and political leadership.

Q: What are the strategic areas that are controlled by the regime and the opposition?

The regime has control over areas that are considered passageways between different regions. Meaning, the regime has taken defensive positions, but it cannot attack from these positions.

As for the opposition, they have control over a lot of territory—they control about two-thirds of Daraa. However, that doesn’t give a clear picture of the situation, as the regime is in control of more strategically important areas that divide the Hauran.

Q: What are the biggest problems that rebel faces in Daraa?

The lack of a unified leadership undermines the FSA’s success and gives rise to more problems. There is no unified leadership to make decisions, but rather a number of leaders who all disagree. Disorganization is also a problem, as it leads to a lot of people working with different supporters who all have a different agenda. That leads to a lack of unity, discipline and obedience within rebel leadership.

The main goal now is to strike the regime’s bases that are currently bombarding civilians, and to open up roads for humanitarian aid.

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