People in Daraa broke out into the streets last week to demonstrate against the Southern Front operation strategy, which fell short of securing full control over the provincial capital. The announcement on 24 June of the Southern Storm battle — a long-anticipated offensive to seize the city of Daraa — intensified the regime’s attacks on civilians, which resulted in the complete destruction of many neighborhoods and the killing of dozens of civilians without significant advancement on the ground. While the anger with the Southern Front is thus far directed at its strategy and not the group itself, this could be the beginning of a significant shift in its community support, and could be exploited by its rivals.
The last ally
The Southern Front is an alliance of 54 rebel groups, from secularist to moderate religious fighters, that operates in and around Daraa Province. It’s linked to and funded by the Military Operations Center(MOC) in Amman, which is run by the US and its allies. The Southern Front is crucial, locally and internationally, when it comes to the Syrian conflict and represents the type of partner that the US and its allies seek in Syria for the following reasons: 1) it’s credible and militarily capable enough to take and hold territories; 2) it’s willing to be committed to a future Syria that is secular, nationalist, inclusive, and respects minority rights; 3) it’s the only non-hardline Islamist rebel group in control of a substantial part of Syria and rejects extremism publically; 4) it controls a strategic territory that is only 100 kilometers away from Damascus and has borders with two important US allies in the region — Jordan and Israel; 5) it’s willing to play a political role and is preparing itself for that by establishing a clear structure, ethical guidelines for its members, and has generated a singular example of civil-military governance by working closely with local civilian councils in the area; 6) it has offered reassurances to the minorities in the province and in the neighboring province of Sweida.
The military advances achieved by the Southern Front in the past few months have been perceived as a significant shift in the way the MOC has been managing the Syrian conflict in southern Syria. It started with capture of the town of Busra al-Sham on 25 March, followed by the seizure of the Nasib border crossing with Jordan on 1 April. Giving the green light to the Southern Front to take over the Nasib crossing was both a tactical and, more importantly, a political one. It indicated a bigger shift in the Jordanian position towards the conflict in Syria; severely damaging Jordan’s remaining diplomatic relations with Damascus as it was Syria’s last government-held border crossing with Jordan. Its seizure by the Southern Front will have negative economic consequences for both the Syrian regime and Jordan, which shows that Jordan is prioritizing its politics over its economy. Furthermore, the public statement made by the Southern Front denouncing Jabhat al-Nusra was the latest indication that something big is about to happen — at least that’s what the Southern Front is hoping and moving toward.
It is still not clear why the Southern Front didn’t get significant support in Daraa. Perhaps the US and its allies didn’t have a clear objective, or what happened was the intended objective of the MOC. It’s possible that the Southern Front was acting in its own interests, or that it misinterpreted signals sent by the MOC due to high expectations after the rapid victory of Jaysh al-Fateh in Idlib. Whatever the case, the Syrian regime and its allies benefited from this pause and launched a counterattack to take back Busra al-Sham, which pushed the Southern Front to tactically ally with its recently declared opponent, the Nusra Front, to defend it. The long-awaited and crucial support that never arrived not only killed the momentum from the Southern Front, it also portrayed them as a weak, dependent agent, and made the Nusra Front look like the ones who’d saved the day.
This cooperation in no way means that Nusra has forgotten who their enemy is — rather, it rather indicates that the right moment to fight the Southern Front has not yet arrived. This may help us understand the establishment of Jaysh al-Fateh in Daraa, which was formed on 21 June from several conservative factions but excluded the Southern Front. This cold war between Jabhat al-Nusra and the Southern Front did not stop them from coordinating their recent assault in Daraa, which also portrayed Nusra as an important ally that can’t be ignored in the fight against the Syrian regime, especially in the absence of the Southern Front getting any significant support from its allies.
Relying on the fact that Nusra still doesn’t have the upper hand in Daraa doesn’t mean that the situation won’t change or that what happened to the pro-Western rebels in the north won’t be repeated with the Southern Front at a later stage. The recent demonstrations against the Southern Front’s operation strategy shows that many people in Daraa are willing to support anyone capable of getting rid of the Syrian regime. If the US and its allies don’t assist the Southen Front in achieving that end and don’t put an end to the Nusra presence in Daraa sooner rather than later, they will be allowing the Nusra Front and its ideological allies to gain more community support and increase their threat against the Southern Front.