Barrel bombs and artillery take heavy toll on vital rebel offensive in Syria’s south

Vice News reports: A powerful coalition of moderate Syrian rebel groups who receive covert backing from the West have renewed calls for a no-fly zone in the south of the country, as their offensive against government troops grinds to a crawl amid heavy bombardment.

The Southern Front is the largest force still to fight under the banner of the Free Syrian Army, and the dominant rebel formation in the city of Daraa, next to the Jordanian border. That places it within striking distance of the Syrian capital of Damascus.

The coalition is avowedly moderate and has publicly rejected coordination with Islamist militias, including al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, al Nusra.

More appealing still to Western observers, they have been winning. From late 2014 until early summer this year, they notched up a string of impressive victories, beating back forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad.

In one early success, they took the hilltop stronghold of Tal al-Harra last October, overrunning an abandoned Russian intelligence base. An Assad-regime general who had made contact with the Southern Front purposely deployed his troops in a weak formation, before defecting in a fake ambush, designed to make it look like he had been killed. He was spirited to Amman, where he provided vital intelligence, leading to the capture of the base, according to the National newspaper.

The victory pointed to another of the Southern Front’s assets: their relative moderation make them an attractive target for defectors from the Assad regime who would never consider supporting Islamists.

By this summer, analysts were feting the Southern Front. One called them Syria’s “last, best hope.” But then the offensive stalled. [Continue reading…]

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