Syria: Does the ‘Southern Front’ really exist?

Aron Lund writes: In mid-February, opposition websites circulated a statement signed by 49 different rebel factions in southern Syria. Banding together as the “Southern Front,” they declared themselves to be “the moderate voice and the strong arm of the Syrian people.”

It was no ordinary rebel statement. Most armed factions have adopted Islamist and often Sunni-sectarian rhetoric, but the Southern Front’s communiqué was different: it made little reference to religion and was couched in nationalist and democratic language, reminiscent of the revolutionary slogans of early 2011:

We are the farmers, the teachers, and the workers that you see every day. Many of us were among the soldiers who defected from a corrupt regime that had turned its weapons around to fight its own countrymen. We represent many classes but our goal is one: to topple the Assad regime and give Syria a chance at a better future. There is no room for sectarianism and extremism in our society, and they will find no room in Syria’s future. The Syrian people deserve the freedom to express their opinions and to work toward a better future. We are striving to create in Syria a government that represents the people and works for their interest. We are the Southern Front.

According to the statement, these 49 signatory factions (some sources put the number at 56 factions) add up to some 30,000 fighters and are spread across the southern border governorates of Quneitra, Daraa, and Sweida, as well as in and around Damascus. Certainly, the numbers are likely to be exaggerated, but the list of signatories did actually include some influential southern groups.

For example, Bashar al-Zoubi’s Yarmouk Brigade has often been mentioned as one of the most powerful groups in the Daraa region. A former travel agent turned rebel commander, Zoubi claimed in August 2013 to control some 4,000–5,000 fighters. He was appointed by the opposition Free Syrian Army’s Supreme Military Council as head of the local front and has long been viewed as a key conduit for foreign support.

Another example is the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front. This group was created only in December 2013, after an injection of Saudi money. Most commanders are in northwest Syria, like its best-known leader, Jamal Maarouf. But the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front does have member factions in the south, after absorbing units from a now-defunct alliance known as Ahfad al-Rasoul. Among these groups, we find Captain Qais Qatana’s Omari Brigades, which was one of the original Free Syrian Army units from 2011.

So, have powerful southern Syrian rebel groups joined in a non-Islamist, democratic alliance? For many Syrians, that must sound too good to be true—and it probably was just that. [Continue reading…]

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