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:
Important Signatory Groups
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.
An Alliance on Paper
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.
Even if everything said in the statement were true (the 30,000 fighters, the long list of groups involved, and the lofty goals declared) the Southern Front would still fall far short of a functioning alliance. The February statement says there is no need for a joint leadership; instead “every leader has the freedom to conduct operations and run his group in the manner that he sees fit.”
What that means is that the Southern Front is nothing at all—it is words on paper, a mere declaration of intent, if even that. Some snippets of video have been released from the signing of the Southern Front statement, where commanders repeat the organization’s main talking points: no to sectarianism, nay to extremism. But they have not since tried to publicize the Southern Front project, and it has not been heard from since. Given that it doesn’t mean real unity and isn’t being propagated in the media, one has to ask—why was the Southern Front declaration signed at all?
Timed for a “Spring Offensive”?
The statement’s release coincided with a burst of American payments to rebels in the south of Syria, after the U.S. Congress secretly renewed its permission to arm and fund Syria’s rebels, as well as with rumors of a “spring offensive” in the south to punish Syrian President Bashar al-Assad for his intransigence at the Geneva II peace conference that took place in January and February this year.
Since then, the purported spring offensive has had modest results, with a handful of villages and bases (and a prison) captured in the past couple of months, although it has apparently been enough to compel the government to step up aerial attacks in the south.
Still No Anti-air Missiles
On February 14, the Wall Street Journal wrote that Saudi Arabia was about to supply the rebels with advanced anti-air and anti-tank missiles, weapons that were “already waiting in warehouses in Jordan and Turkey.” Ten days later, Saudi sources speaking to the Agence France-Press added that Saudi Arabia was trying to acquire such missiles from Pakistan.
Boosting the rebels’ antiair capacity could have a major impact on their ability to advance in the south, but the Saudi promises may have been media spin, and both the United States and Jordan apparently refuse to arm the rebels with such powerful weapons. Some Jordanians are deeply worried about the evolution of Syria’s war and fear a new wave of refugees, while U.S. politicians are distrustful of Islamism and al-Qaeda ties among the rebels.
According to several sources, there has still been an uptick in support to rebels in the south since late February, with large amounts of money spent on rebel salaries and Saudi trucks moving cargo toward the Jordan-Syria border. But without a major increase in support and, probably, the addition of qualitative weapons like antiair missiles, it is hard to imagine that the rebels can advance very far—or that they will be able to unite around a single leadership.
For External Consumption
In the end, it is the supply of weapons that will matter most for both rebel advances and rebel unity, not words. But words may help unlock the storage rooms where those weapons are held, and that’s probably the way to understand the curious Southern Front statement.
Rather than an initiative from the rebels themselves, word is that it was foreign officials that called on rebel commanders to sign a statement declaring their opposition to extremism, saying it was a precondition for getting more guns and money. Since beggars can’t be choosers, the commanders then collectively shrugged their shoulders and signed—but not so much to declare a new alliance as to help U.S. officials tick all the right boxes in their reports back home, hoping that this would unlock another crate of guns.
Southern Front Signatory Factions
Below is a list of groups listed as signatories to the Southern Front statement released in February 2014.
1. Syria Revolutionaries’ Front (Southern Branch)
2. Lower Qalamoun Brigade
3. Yarmouk Brigade
4. Fallujah of Houran Brigade
5. Muhajerin and Ansar Brigade
6. Usoud al-Sunna Brigade
7. March 18 Division
8. Hamza Assadullah Brigade
9. First Commando Division
10. Fajr al-Islam Brigade
11. Shabab al-Sunna Brigade
12. al-Ezz bin Abdessalam Brigade
13. Karama Brigade
14. Tahrir al-Sham Division
15. First Artillery Regiment
16. First Brigade
17. Shuhada Douma Brigade
18. Ghouta Mujahedin Brigade
19. Ababil Houran Brigade
20. Tawhid Kataeb Houran
21. Eleventh Division/Upper Qalamoun
22. al-Moutazz Billah Brigade
23. Special Assignments Brigade
24. Quneitra Military Council
25. Seif al-Sham Brigade
26. Tahrir al-Sham Brigade
27. Damascus Martyrs Brigade
28. Islam Martyrs Brigade
29. Freedom Martyrs Brigade
30. Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade
31. Amoud Houran Brigade
32. al-Lajat Shield Brigade
33. al-Haramein al-Sharifein Brigade
34. Habib Brigade
35. Bunyan Battalion
36. Ahrar Nawa brigade
37. Usoud al-Islam Battalion
38. Salaheddin Brigade
39. Houran Storm Brigade
40. Tebarek Rahman Battalion
41. Tawhid al-Lajat Battalion
42. First Knights’ Regiment
43. Second Knights’ Regiment
44. al-Moutassem Billah Battalion
45. Homs al-Walid Brigade
46. Ahfad ibn al-Walid Brigade
47. Special Assignments Regiment
48. Martyr of Houran Brigade
49. Western Countryside Ahrar Battalion