On February 1, rebel groups in southern Syria began an armed offensive called, only slightly tongue in cheek, the “Geneva of the Hauran” battle. It is a reference to the faltering Syrian peace conference in Switzerland, known as Geneva II, and it helps clarify where the rebels think that the real renegotiation of power in Syria is taking place: on the battlefield rather than in a five-star Swiss hotel.
Hauran is a historical region in the south of Syria, roughly corresponding to today’s Daraa Governorate. This is the area where the new wave of clashes between Syrian opposition forces and the army is taking place, but there are also rebel advances in the adjacent Quneitra and Rif Dimashq Provinces. In fact, it seems like southern Syria is in for a spring offensive.
A Strategy to Influence the Uprising
As noted on Syria in Crisis a few months ago, the insurgency in southern Syria is widely perceived to be a different beast than the Islamist-dominated northern rebellion. Radical Islamist factions seem relatively less powerful than in the north, and foreign influence from across the Jordanian border is greater.
In a reminder of just how great that influence can be, rebel sources told the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper the National that the “Geneva of the Hauran” operations began forty-eight hours after money was paid out by agents of the U.S. government.
According to several reports, the U.S. Congress has secretly resumed its funding of rebels in southern Syria, and the American money is coming on top of millions more spent by Saudi Arabia. By buying the allegiance of armed factions, the United States and its allies seek to expand their own influence in the south while marginalizing al-Qaeda and similar groups. Indeed, the weapons now provided by the United States are explicitly intended to strengthen “moderate rebels rather than militant jihadist factions.”
Consequently, there are now reports of a rather extensive restructuring of the rebel networks in southern Syria, partly because units of the former Ahfad al-Rasoul Brigade, an opposition battalion affiliated with the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council but is now dissolved, are beginning to rebrand themselves as members of the Syria Revolutionaries’ Front, a recently created, Saudi-funded and Western-backed alliance that has been fighting jihadis in northern Syria. Some southern commanders have even quietly lined up to support the Geneva II negotiations—very much consistent with Western demands, even if it seems out of touch with the general mood of the insurgency.
Lessons From Last Year
The idea of a southern offensive by “vetted” rebels has already been tried once, in the spring of 2013. Then, the southern front was boosted by fresh deliveries of Croatian antitank weaponry in conjunction with an effort to reorganize local rebel forces into politically moderate coalitions that would accept foreign guidance. The rebels advanced quickly, capturing territory across Daraa and the Golan Heights.
However, the problems of this strategy quickly became apparent. Some of the Croatian guns fell into the hands of the Nusra Front, an al-Qaeda affiliate, and an even bigger problem was that the fighting set off a panicked flight of civilians, raising the number of registered refugees in Jordan from 100,000 in early December 2012 to 400,000 in early April 2013. Soon enough, the arms deliveries were halted and the offensive stalled.
This time around, there has apparently been more preparation. Rebels tell the National that 15,000 tents are being put up in southern Syria in anticipation of a renewed refugee crisis. Jordanian authorities are presumably also bracing themselves for a new wave of Syrians fleeing across the border, but they can’t be happy about it. The kingdom has long complained of instability seeping in from Syria, with a growth in border insecurity and Islamist radicalism.
Same Problem, Same Results
Jordanian objections may be a manageable problem, but there are certain hard limits to how much the United States and other states will want to expand rebel power in southern Syria.
The Syrian insurgency remains a captive of its own structural flaws, with hundreds of little groups operating in southern Syria alone. If the rebels manage to expel Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces from Daraa but are too divided to establish new governing structures, they will end up with a situation similar to that in Syria’s north and east: armed anarchy, ripe for exploitation by criminal, tribal, and extremist groups.
The United States, very clearly, does not want to risk this. Any new wave of funding and equipment coming into southern Syria should therefore be understood as a limited gamble only. It will be a shot across the bow of the Syrian regime for stalling the Geneva II peace talks, and it could help undermine Assad’s siege tactics around Damascus and his offensives further north. More significantly, it is part of an attempt to strengthen Gulf and Western influence over the southern insurgency and to reorganize it for later use.
Perhaps, then, the battles of the “Geneva of the Hauran” will turn out very much like the negotiations in the Geneva of Switzerland: inconclusive and disappointing to its participants yet not without effect on the political dynamics of the war.