Rebel groups based in southern Syria are advancing on the western suburbs of Damascus and warning they might soon enter the capital, a development that’s in sharp contrast to the grim reports from northern Syria, where moderate rebels have suffered setbacks from the government and radical Islamists.
The advance by the so-called Southern Front also stands apart from the situation in the north because moderate rebels still appear to be the dominant opposition force in the south, eclipsing al Qaida’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front, in planning and executing military advances.
Further, Southern Front commanders credit airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition with helping their cause, primarily by keeping Islamic State fighters from moving against them. “If it weren’t for the coalition strikes, Daash would have reached our areas,” Abul Majd, a spokesman for the Southern Front, told McClatchy via Skype, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State. “Thanks to these strikes, we are focusing now on the regime, our main enemy.”
In contrast, commanders in the north have complained that they’ve benefited little from the strikes on the Islamic State, and they even accuse the United States of undercutting support for the rebels with airstrikes aimed at Nusra and the so-called Khorasan Group, which the U.S. says consists of al Qaida members plotting attacks on Western targets from Syria.
On Friday, another Southern Front leader, Gen. Assad al Zubi, told Damascus residents via opposition Orient TV that the day of the “big victory” is close. In his statement, he warned that the government was likely to crack down hard as rebel forces drew near and Damascus residents should expect to receive instructions in the coming days, in the form of pamphlets distributed by civil activists working with the rebels.
Zubi’s statement came as as estimated 38,000 rebel fighters, including 54 different brigades that fight under the Free Syrian Army name, have achieved their most significant victories since the Southern Front was announced last February.
Just four months after the Southern Front was established, its fighters began seizing strategic hills in northwest Daraa province, an advance that undercut government positions in the south, which already was one of the most militarized areas in Syria because of its proximity to the Israeli border.
Last week, the rebels seized the city of Sheikh Miskin in northern Daraa, 50 miles south of Damascus but just five miles from Izraa, which is considered the government’s first defensive line to protect the capital. Rebels are fighting now to take another strategic town, Delli. Capturing that town would cut the Damascus-Daraa highway and sever the supply route between Izraa and a major government military base.
With the highway cut, bases in the towns of al Sanamain and Dael would be isolated, “making it easier to attack the bases separately,” Abul Majd said.
Further west, rebels also are fighting to capture Tal Afa, a strategic hill whose seizure would pave the way for them to move on the city of Kanaker, which lies about 25 miles from the capital and is considered the first of Damascus’ western suburbs. Rebel fighters say they now are only six miles from Kanaker.
Closing on the capital is hardly a sure thing, however. The government has major army divisions in the area, though rebels say they hope that morale is low among government troops and they’ll flee when rebel forces arrive.
Abul Majd said Southern Front fighters were receiving assistance from the United States and other countries. “We are getting TOW missiles and different kinds of heavy ammunition. We are a major partner in the international coalition against terrorism,” he said.
The Southern Front has long been viewed as one of the more disciplined of the moderate rebel organizations and one that’s relatively free of influence from Islamist- and al Qaida-affiliated groups – something that’s hampered U.S. assistance in the north, where extremist influence is such that moderate rebel groups are in danger of eradication.
In the south, moderate rebels, relying on family ties, have been able to keep the Islamic State from penetrating and the Nusra Front has never become a dominant player. Gen. Ibrahim al Jibbawi, a Southern Front commander, said during a recent interview in Istanbul that al Qaida-affiliated fighters numbered about 3,000 and there were also a few hundred fighters from two Islamist groups, Ahrar al Sham and al Muthana.
A statement from the Southern Front announcing the beginning of a new battle said 11 factions were sharing a command center. Nine of those are from the moderate Southern Front. The other groups represented are Nusra and al Muthana.