Syria dissident groups still not united

Despite reaching significant milestones in terms of expansion and battles, dissident coalition groups have been struggling to overcome differences and unite.

al-monitor Free Syrian Army fighters run behind sandbags in Daraa Al-Mahata, Jan. 21, 2015.  Photo by REUTERS/Wsam Almokdad.

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syrian opposition, syrian crisis, syrian civil war, syria, jabhat al-nusra, geneva ii, free syrian army

Mar 5, 2015

Ever since the countries supporting militants set their eyes on Syria’s southern front, the scale of the plan of action conducted by the armed groups in the region has been significant. This proved that the battles they were waging were in no way arbitrary. These militant groups, however, are facing the most serious of tests with the advancement of the Syrian army and its control over more strategic locations in the region.

Around a year ago, with the failure of the Geneva II negotiations, talks about opening the southern front started in the Arab world and the West. After that, armed groups joined the Syria Revolutionaries Front and supplied them with anti-tank TOW missiles. They later waged attacks with the intention of linking the Daraa countryside to the town of Quneitra, all the while tightening their grip on strategic spots like Tel el-Ahmar in Quneitra, the cities of Nawa and al-Shaykh Maskin, as well as the strategic Tel al-Harra in Daraa.

What is perhaps remarkable about these battles is that the chain of operations and advancement strategies could not have been arbitrary or conducted through simplistic planning, especially since some of the operations did not last for more than 48 hours. This begs serious questions about the role of the joint operations room, whether among the armed groups in Houran or the Friends of Syria group in Amman.

However, opposition activists and sources close to the armed groups stressed that “talk about an operations room is delusional.” They said, “The aim is to play on people’s fears. This is a tribal and rural approach that prompts forces to rush to the rescue of the aid seeker, which explains their [the forces’] activities and battles. Moreover, most of the leaders are defected officers.”

Some believe that “the relations between the groups are very bad. Each party blames the other for the fall of towns north of Houran, like the Fatima hill and al-Habariya. Each faction is working independently and stubbornly, and therefore, the existence of a joint operations room is out of the question.”

However, a new reality will impose itself, as per the militants, in the coming stage, as opposition activists revealed March 3 that an operations room including mainly extremist Islamist factions and Free Syrian Army groups, in a secondary role, was formed. It seems like this room is acting as a consolation prize.

The operations room includes Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar ash-Sham (Free People of Syria), Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis and the al-Mathna Islamic Movement. Opposition sources from the field in the South said that “these groups only started their activities after the repeated failures to repel the attacks, especially since the only party fighting in the Daraa countryside of Kfar-nasej is the First Army, a Syrian rebel group. The First Army has in its ranks the Syria Revolutionaries Front and al-Hamza Brigades. This comes at a time when the Fallujah of Houran Brigade and the Yarmouk Brigade refuse to move jointly, and each awaits the instructions of the respective operations room in Jordan.”

Remarkably, all these factions were not strongly involved in the fighting since the start of the Syrian army attack about 20 days earlier, with the exception of a failed attack on the Fatima hill last Saturday. The attack was carried out by Jabhat al-Nusra, which is based in the western and southern countryside of Daraa, and near the occupied Golan Heights, where it shares influence with the al-Mathna Islamic Movement and Ahrar ash-Sham.

Yet, does the MOC Operations Center in Amman have influence over these factions?

At a time when the majority of oppositionists recognize the constant communion with Jordan and its MOC, they underestimate the extent of the influence it actually exercises, “which, had it been present, arms and ammunitions would have flown to repel the attacks in Deir al-Adas, Hebbariye, and other locations that have fallen into the Syrian army's grip,” according to those oppositionists. 

Yet, an opposition source told As-Safir that the operations room — stationed near the Syrian border north of Jordan — was actually able to thwart some of the battles, such as the attack on Syria’s Air Force Intelligence headquarters last spring, the seize of the grain silos and the Gharz central prison, and the creeping towards the Nasib border crossing. Moreover, arms and ammunition warehouses are open only to specific operations and at specific times. This also explains how fast some of the battles start and end.

Brigades, armies and alliances

After the risk of an Islamic State (IS) expansion towards the plains of Horan was stymied months ago, the restructuring of factions have begun, whereby they now assemble into new entities while keeping their ties with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the General Staff. Surprisingly, though, according to an opposition source from the field, these confluences are considered mere ink on paper, while in reality, each of their entities operates independently and does not accept to engage with the rest. A case-in-point is the Hawks of the South — a Free Syrian Army Rebel Coalition Group — which has under its umbrella four groups, namely the Yarmouk Army, the Black Islam Brigade, the Fallujah of Houran Brigade and the 18 March Division.

The Yarmouk army, headed by Bashar al-Zoubi, had previously led many battles at the directives of Amman. On the other hand, the Fallujah Horan Brigade was established following the collapse of a brigade bearing the same name and led by Yasser al-Abboud — who was killed by a shell during a battle in the city of Tafas. Although both brigades agreed to become subsumed under the same banner, reports indicate that they have had strained relations.

The First Corps, led by dissident Ziad al-Hariri, does not seem to be doing any better. It comprises more than 37 battalions and brigades, according to Horan’s journalists. It has also been said that internal clashes have erupted within the corps’ ranks over arms sharing. Reports indicate that the corps prefers to stay away from hot spots. This is especially true, despite information indicating that the group was established based on a direct decision by Amman’s MOC Operations Center.

Furthermore, groups under the Syrian Rebels Front, especially Al-Omari Brigades and Hamza Brigades—led by dissident Saber Safar— have merged their ranks. They have now been deployed in Horan’s western countryside along with the First Artillery Regiment, seeking to establish the “First Army.” These groups are also fighting in Kafr Nasej and are fortifying their locations near Tel al-Hara.

Jabhat al-Nusra

Jabhat al-Nusra has been gradually advancing and expanding in Syria’s hot spots, especially near the occupied Golan Heights.

Following the spread of IS in Deir az-Zor, many of Jabhat al-Nusra’s current and former leaders have left to Daraa, such as Abu Maria al-Kahtani and the new Jordanian leader of the group, Sami Al-Aridi, in addition to Abu Hassan al-Kuwaiti and Abu Osama al-Adnani.

This came in conjunction with the measures taken by Jabhat al-Nusra in an attempt to prove its existence, primarily among its own factions. The group has arrested the head of the al-Nusra’s military council, Ahmed al-Nehme, as well as leader Moussa al-Mousalima, and waged a fierce attack on the Yarmouk Martyrs Brigade in Saham al-Jawlan, after having been accused of swearing allegiance to IS.

Jabhat al-Nusra has had a prominent presence in Daraa, notably when it was at the forefront of western Tel al-Ahmar battles, and also took part in the fighting that broke out in Quneitra, in addition to border regions near Lebanon’s Shebaa Farms. The group also attempted a failed attack on Madinat al-Baath and Khan Arnaba, only to withdraw, leaving the rest of the battalions under the shells of the Syrian regime.

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