Three months after the fall of Idlib, the government of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad may be about to lose another provincial capital. The Syrian army has been on a losing streak that began in late March 2015. Since then, Idlib, Jisr al-Shughur, and Ariha have been lost to an Islamist-led coalition of rebels in the northwest. Meanwhile in the east, the extremist group known as the Islamic State recently captured the strategic city of Palmyra, along with some of Syria’s critical energy infrastructure.
In the south of Syria, the situation looks equally dire for Assad. Since 2014, and in recent months especially, a long line of local defeats have taken their toll on the army south of Damascus, leaving the remaining government forces in a highly precarious position.
This winter, rebels fought their way into the city of Sheikh Miskin and captured nearby military installations, thereby threatening Assad’s supply routes into the Daraa Governorate. In late March, they seized the long-contested city of Bosra further to the east. They quickly went on to take the Nasib border crossing, Assad’s last point of access to Jordan, thereby choking off the overland trade between the Syrian capital and consumer markets in the Gulf Arab states and Iran. (Attempts to reroute cargo by air or sea do not seem to have made up for the losses.) Meanwhile, the grinding battle for control over Syrian-held portions of the Golan Heights goes on, with rebels now in control of most of the area. More recently, in early June, rebels on the opposite end of the region overtook the Brigade 52 base, an important stronghold for the army.
The Cradle of the Syrian Uprising
All the while, the Syrian government has clung tenaciously to the provincial capital itself. Daraa City was where the Syrian uprising began in earnest in March 2011, when security forces opened fire against demonstrators angered by the arrest of several children as well as a host of other issues. What had begun as an essentially local protest then mushroomed into open rebellion across the Houran Plain, an agricultural region hemmed in by the Golan Heights in the west and the Druze-populated Arab Mountain to the east—and the rest is history.
In the past couple of years, the Syrian government’s support base in the south has steadily withered away, with rebels able to draw on support from many of the Houran region's Sunni Arab clans. Recent government attempts to reclaim territory in the Damascus-Golan-Daraa area were reportedly heavily backed and coordinated by Iranian personnel and foreign Shia militias, which, if true, indicates the scale of Assad’s manpower deficit. The mysterious death in April of Political Security Director Rustum Ghazaleh—a native of the Daraa Governorate who held special responsibility for dealing with his home region—may have been unrelated to these events, but the symbolism was lost on no one.
The Southern Storm Offensive
Now, Daraa City itself has come into the rebels’ crosshairs. As Idlib formerly was in the northwest, the city remains connected to Damascus only by a spindly and nearly indefensible supply route along the north–south highway.
On June 24, a coalition of Western and Gulf Arab–backed rebels announced the beginning of operation Southern Storm, which seems to aim for the final conquest of Daraa City; remaining towns along the highway would then be of little use to Assad and could fall quickly. While massing fighters to attack government-controlled parts of the city, the Southern Storm command has declared the Damascus–Daraa road a “closed military zone” in an attempt to prevent resupply and reinforcements for the beleaguered soldiers in Daraa City. According to pro-opposition sources, rebels are already advancing into the government-held areas of the city, and while it is too soon to say with any certainty, we may well be about to witness the final expulsion of Assad’s forces from the south.
The operation has been prepared for some time, with signs multiplying that something big was in the works over the past few weeks.
In early June, for example, the powerful Islamist commander Zahran Alloush, who rules several suburbs east of Damascus, turned up in Amman to consult with rebels and the intelligence services backing them. The Jordanian capital was also visited by Khaled Khoja, head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, which gathers most of the exiled opposition.
The Role of the Southern Front
The Southern Storm offensive has been engineered by commanders in the so-called Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army, a coalition of several dozen local insurgent groups that was originally announced in spring 2014 following the failure of the Geneva II peace talks. Excluding the most hard-line Islamist and jihadi factions, the Southern Front has vowed to establish democratic governance in Syria. It is not a cohesive organization, however, but rather an alliance of units that are each individually linked to and funded by the so-called Military Operations Center in Amman (MOC). While certain coordinating functions and apparently also command institutions have been developed among the Southern Front factions over time, it does not appear to have a functioning central leadership. Instead, the Southern Front serves as a kind of political superstructure to represent the MOC-backed groups, streamline their propaganda efforts, and ensure the exclusion of al-Qaeda–linked factions like the Nusra Front.
This, of course, reflects the strategic planning of the MOC members, who seek to overthrow or at least pressure Assad while also aiming to diminish the influence of Islamist factions that could threaten their own security. The MOC is reportedly staffed by government agents from the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and other anti-Assad nations. Most accounts indicate that it is in fact the MOC itself that directs and enables rebel offensives through the Southern Front, having ensured that its constituent factions are now deeply dependent on foreign support.
The MOC appears to have been reasonably effective at its task. In contrast to earlier haphazard attempts to fund the anti-Assad rebels, the southern insurgency has developed slowly and fairly consistently since 2014, presumably to avoid the kind of chaos that could open the way for an extremist takeover and add to Jordan’s refugee problem. This is surely one explanation for the relatively weaker position of extremist factions among the rebels in southern Syria than in the north (not to mention the east, where the Islamic State has expelled all rivals).
While the so-called Fath Army coalition of local rebels that captured Idlib last March was strongly dominated by hard-line Islamists like Ahrar al-Sham and the terrorist-listed Nusra Front, the MOC clearly hopes that Daraa—if captured—will act as a counterpoint and prove that this is not an inevitable outcome of rebel victories. Indeed, if this strategy is successful, southern Syria could emerge as a crucial logistical base area for future advances against Damascus, while also providing a much-needed political boost for “managed” factions of the Southern Front stripe, further empowering them over their jihadist rivals and other noncooperative groups.
Despite the Progress, a Risky Gamble
However, there are a number of risks associated with this strategy. The central messaging of the Southern Front is colored by nationalist and democratic rhetoric, but member factions include many Islamist and nonideological, populist groups whose adoption of MOC-provided talking points are likely to be more opportunistic than heartfelt. And the wider insurgency is now deeply enmeshed with Sunni Islamism and sectarianism, with the most powerful factions often also being the least liberal ones. One example is Zahran Alloush himself, now reportedly present on the battlefield in Daraa and seemingly slated for a major role in future rebel offensives. A Salafi activist before the uprising, he has a history of making threatening statements against minorities, although he has recently tried to downplay these views in what is very likely a nod to his funders.
The most fundamental problem is the seeming absence of central leadership and institutions able to take charge in the vacuum that would likely follow if Assad is expelled from Daraa. The jihadi hard-liners typically gain ground in divided and unstable regions where they are able to provide basic law and order by enforcing sharia law, operate noncorrupt charities, play tribal politics, and appeal to conservative Sunni Islamic values. It is uncertain if the MOC will be able to keep the Southern Front groups under control in the event of a victory, which may open up new struggles for control over territory and resources. If a breakdown in law and order follows, with widespread looting or infighting, the religious radicals stand poised to gain. Troublingly, there is no shortage of internal rivalries among the Daraa factions, even though these remain concealed by joint messaging through the Southern Front and have so far been offset by the dominance of the MOC. A recent attempt to declare a central Southern Front leadership following the fall of the Nasib crossing stumbled when major factions complained that they had been unilaterally excluded by their rivals. Unless preparations have been made in secret—which may very well be the case—there is little clarity on who would be in charge in a rebel-held Daraa City. The government is likely to treat the Houran region like all other territories wrested from its control, exposing the area to a furious barrage of aerial bombardment. This would further complicate attempts to stabilize the region.
And, even though the Southern Front rebels have proven themselves willing to publicly criticize al-Qaeda and its ideology, they seem much less keen on actually confronting the jihadis if things should come to a head. Although they have grudgingly accepted MOC restrictions on who they can and cannot cooperate with, the mainstream view seems to be that support from the religious hard-liners is both legitimate and highly useful in the war against Assad. The Nusra Front, in particular, has often been able to break down regime strongholds through suicide bomber attacks.
The religious hard-liners are now angling to ensure their future relevance through a complex game of coalitions and countercoalitions, such as the recently formed Fath Army-South (inspired by the Fath Army that captured Idlib). It therefore remains to be seen whether the MOC-backed factions will be able to marginalize these groups without provoking major splits and infighting, either during the assault on Daraa or in its aftermath.
Still, while the rebel groups and their backers have their work cut out for them, there is little doubt that recent events spell major trouble for Bashar al-Assad and his government. With the army now in retreat in the north, east, and south, and the government struggling to contain its own spiraling economic problems, Assad’s military position is clearly deteriorating. The fall of Daraa would powerfully illustrate the failure of his current strategy and indicate that the war is reaching a tipping point, though there is ultimately no end in sight.