Fall of the south: causes and repercussions

After the military defeats suffered by the opposition factions across Syria, there is an attempt to form popular resistance based on guerrilla warfare. Here is the testimony of one of the dissident officers from the province of Daraa on what went down in the past few years and what is happening today.

18 January 2019

A banner raised in Maarba in the countryside of Daraa on December 24, 2018. Image published on the Facebook page of Ahrar Horan.
Jawad Jadallah

The author is a former leader in the Free Syrian Army and is writing under a pseudonym.

Translated by: Pascale Menassa

With the outbreak of the Syrian revolution, several international and regional parties were following the developments of public protests that took off in Daraa city March 18 and included all cities and towns of the governorate. The protests faced serious oppression and live bullets from the army and security forces. The city was besieged and was under artillery shelling in April of that year, while protests continued in most Syrian governorates. The aforementioned parties followed the developments of the revolution, which had begun to take another turn, with the wide defections from the security forces and army. The defected men organized themselves and stood by citizens to deter the repeated raids and the regime’s almost daily military campaigns.

Given the changing situation on the ground and the ability of defected groups to launch wide-scale attacks on regime checkpoints and military barracks, the Free Syrian Army (FSA) took the lead in Daraa. Its groups launched wide-scale military operations in the Eastern region. Consequently, the Daraa Military Council was formed Feb. 24, 2012, and it received the open support of Saudi Arabia and the covert backing of Jordan.

Support was distributed among the factions operating on the ground, with ongoing special support from locals and migrants in the Gulf and Jordan. The money was collected to buy weapons and ammunition. Another form of support that came later was through groups gathering donations from organizations and associations that sympathized with the revolution and backed it through funds and weapons smuggled to Syria to be delivered to faction leaders or their representatives.

This paved the way for ideologized support. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) sent out support to groups like Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, which later pledged allegiance to the Islamic State (IS). The MB also backed any group whose name ended with “shield” like the South Shield and Sunni Lions’ Shield. But, these groups later stopped receiving support and removed the word “shield” from their names, as a sign of protest against IS and Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade policies. The name of the latter was changed into Yarmouk Army [Jaish al-Yarmouk] at first then into Army of the Revolution [Jaish al-Thawra]. 

This stage continued until Jabhat al-Nusra abducted the chief of the Daraa Military Council Ahmad Naameh on May 4, 2014. The joint Military Operations’ Center (MOC) then started backing the factions operating in the south, after the military expansion on the ground and the control of key positions in the governorate. Jordan facilitated the passage of FSA groups for training in Saudi, under the surveillance of Saudi intelligence for two rounds only. Then, Jordan welcomed FSA groups to train them on its territories at the King Faisal Airbase in southeast Jordan, under the supervision of military experts from different nationalities. The groups were trained to implement raids and use light, medium and heavy weapons. Upon their return to Syria, they were aided by all forms of military support.

The expansion called for recruiting more militants and boosting logistic support, including funds, equipment, weapons and ammunition, because the arms that the rebels seized from military locations they controlled were not enough. The MOC chamber began directing support to rising factions in combat by giving them ammunition, arms and financial and logistic support. These factions included the 18 March Division, Shabab Al-Sunnah Division, the Artillery Regiment, Muhajirin Brigade, Al-Ansar and Liwa al-Furqan, among others. 

This connection with the MOC was among the reasons that pushed the factional leaders to remain outside Syria for long stretches, either due to meetings in Jordan or in an attempt to improve the situation of their factions by marketing for them before the supporting countries. As a result, leaders clearly neglected the situation of their military formations and relied on other people to manage the factions. This reliance was not based on competence, rather on tribal connections, and so on. Consequently, inept people who did not believe in the goals and principles of the revolution were at the helm of those factions. Militants were also recruited without looking into their background or tendencies and without training them ideologically to believe in the goals of the revolution. Joining military factions turned into a profession to benefit from a salary and aid, which made it easier for the regime and its intelligence to seep into the gaps in these leaderships and factional memberships.

Early 2015, ideological differences between the FSA and Jabhat al-Nusra widened. Several FSA leaders like Naameh, Mohammad al-Zoebi a.k.a al-Khawsa, leader in Yarmouk Martyrs’ Brigade, and Mohannad al-Meqdad nicknamed Al-Zeer, leader in the South Shield Brigade, in addition to several rebels, were killed. Jabhat al-Nusra was accused of assassinating them. The group was also after several goals, like establishing an emirate in the Syrian south and crushing the rebels and FSA factions. The pivotal chapter began when Al-Sheikh Maskin city fell in the hands of the Syrian army, with huge support from the Russian air force. The Islamic Muthana movement, which had pledged allegiance to IS, cut supply lines to the city after the last attack on several FSA factions. This event alerted the surrounding villages to the risk of the regime’s entry, prompting the decision to calm things with the regime.

Between IS and the regime

Early 2016, Khalid ibn al-Walid Army that pledged allegiance to IS launched a wide-scale attack through which it controlled wide areas of Daraa’s western countryside. FSA factions took action quickly to deter the attack and regain what IS had controlled during fierce and ongoing battles until the organization retreated to the Yarmouk Basin, where it reinforced itself. The battles continued until the fall of the governorate in the hands of the regime.

As a result of this situation, huge pressure was applied on the fighting factions to disperse them on different fronts, between the regime and the extremist organization. Meanwhile, the regime and IS resumed fighting at the same time.

During the course of my military operations against IS, the regime’s two downing operations of IS containers with unknown content using parachutes were detected. Military helicopters implemented the operation over Adwan town in Yarmouk Basin and Al-Shajara town, when the FSA pressed for a breach in IS-controlled areas.

During this three-year fighting, the capacities of factions were exhausted amid the obvious danger of IS on the course of the revolution.   Moreover, supporting countries required in exchange for their support more focus on fighting IS.   As a result, the factions’ military and human capacities were depleted, and FSA factions were almost fully focused on the open front with IS.

In tandem with these developments, IS-affiliated cells and the Assad regime carried out several assassinations of FSA cadres and leaders. This pushed factions to focus their security attention on tracking and uprooting these cells, with assassination operations peaking between early 2017 and early 2018.

Unification attempts against fragmentation

All of these incidents were coupled with attempts to unite the FSA ranks into one body. The first was the formation of the Southern Front in February 2014, but this step failed and remained a mere proposal with no effective integration. A number of meetings during 2016 and 2017 followed, all of which also failed for a number of reasons, including the prevalence of narrow factional interests, the thirst for control and partisan affiliation of a limited number of major factions, such as the Yarmouk Army, whose leadership was accused of being affiliated with the MB. The failure to unite the FSA factions was accompanied by an inability to produce a competent political front capable of taking a clear political stance, with the support of an empowered military force. In northern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were able to form a unified military force and produce political representatives capable of making the necessary decisions while preserving SDF’s secessionist inclination.

Throughout the years of the conflict, the relatively poor security situation and the blockade imposed by the Assad regime on the areas outside its control, both economically and on the humanitarian level, placed great pressure on the [opposition] popular base and the citizens living in FSA-controlled areas. This pressured the FSA factions to discontinue fighting to spare villages and towns total destruction.

Foreign interference

In recent months, before the fall of the opposition-held territories, information indicated that the Assad regime, under Russian supervision, was gearing up for a major campaign aimed to launch a large offensive on Daraa. Accordingly, a number of FSA factions began to prepare a preemptive military action to take over several military sites and prevent the regime from using those sites in its anticipated offensive. Other factions, however, stood in the FSA’s way, in fulfillment of the US and Jordanian vision and recommendations on the need to stop any military action initiated by the FSA. The US and Jordan claimed such military action would give the Assad regime and its Russian supporter a pretext to attack the South on the grounds that the FSA breached the de-escalation agreement. Consequently, preparations and attempts to carry out a military action failed; demoralizing both the FSA fighters and their popular bases. However, just two days before the Assad regime and the Shiite militias assisted by Russian air force launched their offensive, the US sent a message to the FSA leaders affirming that it will not intervene to stop this offensive and that it will advise the Russians not to breach the de-escalation agreement. The US asserted that the choice of waging war rests with the FSA leaders. Many FSA factions were shocked upon hearing the news.

All of these events combined to spell the end of the FSA’s control over south Syria. At a subsequent stage, the Assad regime and its supporting militias entered the South villages after fierce battles in which the regime and the Russians used all of their available firepower. In this attack, 12 warplanes and four helicopters carrying deadly barrel bombs hovered over the town of Basr al-Harir to carry out synchronized strikes.

South Syria, between control and instability

The opposition-held territories fell under the control of the regime — with the full support of the Russians and sectarian militias — after one of the fiercest and most violent offensives by the regime, its staunch Russian allies and supporting sectarian militias. The regime concluded a number of agreements with some of the factions that were under the umbrella of the FSA, in conjunction with the withdrawal of Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS) from the south to the north as part of the displacement agreement. These agreements were concentrated in three main areas: the western region, the eastern region and the city of Daraa. They allowed the regime to integrate a number of members of these factions into its forces. This integration was governed by virtue of recruitment contracts with the Syrian military intelligence, the fourth Armored Division and the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah, in an attempt to win over the new conscripts as a stand-by security force that would help the regime control the region.
However, it clearly appeared that the regime had no control on the ground in Daraa, except for some security checkpoints that do not take any action against any person crossing them. Clear instructions were issued, even to the police force, not to arrest anyone. All of these facts coupled with abundant leaked information confirmed that the regime and its forces on the ground feared exerting pressure on citizens to avoid the explosion of the situation. Such a scenario would cause heavy losses to the regime forces that were scattered and deployed across the vast south Syrian territory.

Towards the resistance option

Meanwhile, despite such messages, indicators showed a tendency to form popular resistance groups aimed at striking the [regime] forces, with the implicit blessing of those carrying the revolutionary banner in the South, in addition to those who previously supported the regime. This was especially true following the conscription call-ups, mainly of the largest part of pro-regime youths. Besides, there was a general feeling that the regime could not be trusted and may renounce all of its commitments. The security structure was also chaotic and operated without obeying orders, regardless of the source of these orders, even if they were issued by the president himself. At the same time, many armed opposition men chose not to leave the region under the displacement agreement. They formed the core of a new resistance movement aimed at sending clear messages that the South was still rebellious. This pressured the regime into considering decisions that would calm the public to preserve the region and its inhabitants and pave the way for a transitional phase.

Unexpected military operations spearheaded by the popular resistance coincided with the return of signs of public activism, like anti-regime slogans in the various villages and towns of Daraa. These slogans included, “Down with the Baath Party,” “No to Military Conscription,” “Down with Bashar al-Assad,” and “Bashar, Leave!”  These slogans were written on the walls of the regime’s military headquarters, barracks and security centers. Moreover, a protest was staged outside the Omari Mosque on Dec. 20, 2018. Protesters carried the flag of the revolution, shouted slogans rejecting compromises in the Syrian south, demanding the release of detainees and accusing the conscripts in the Syrian army who participated in military operations of treason.

According to preliminary indicators, the rebellious military action that may take shape in the coming days does not intend to control areas of land. Should this action materialize, it would take the conflict back to the early years of the revolution and the guerrilla warfare. This terrifies the regime and its leaders and would push them to reassess the situation of the region as a whole.

All of these indicators show that the regime only has pro-form control over the South and that the situation may change in the coming days.

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Illustation by Dima Nechawi Graphic Design by Hesham Asaad