Syria's Last Best Hope: The Southern Front
The Syrian regime is weakening militarily in the face of the rise of the Islamic State (ISIS) as well as the Islamist rebel coalition Jaysh al-Fateh that is sponsored by Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Qatar; in addition, gains have been made by the moderate opposition coalition in the south known as the Southern Front. The regime’s strain means it is no longer able to fight all those groups directly. It has instead begun to indirectly use ISIS to fight them by not standing in the way of ISIS advances in their areas.
This new regime strategy aims at letting ISIS overwhelm the moderate opposition as well as other Islamist groups. Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s calculation is that if the only actors left on the ground in the conflict are ISIS and the regime, he can then argue that Syria’s choices are either the Islamic State or his regime, and appeal to the international community on that basis. But there is a third way for the future of Syria that can happen if Syria’s only remaining moderate opposition coalition, the Southern Front, is empowered.
The Southern Front is a coalition of Free Syrian Army brigades that renounces extremism and only accepts moderates in its ranks. It has been making significant gains in the southern governorate of Daraa mainly because of its military capacity, supported by the United States and European countries as well as Saudi Arabia and Jordan, as well as its social outreach through working closely with civilian local councils in the area. The combination of military achievement and citizen trust has increased the legitimacy of the Front among Syrians in Daraa.
The Southern Front is crucial in the context of the Syrian conflict not only because of its rejection of extremism and its legitimacy but also because the area that is mostly controlled by it, Daraa, is only 100 kilometers away from Damascus. Whoever takes over Damascus can set the future trajectory of the war, though of course taking over the capital is no mean feat. The regime as well as Jaysh al-Fateh and the Southern Front all have their eyes set on Damascus.
Because of the strategic importance of the south, the regime has tried to stop the advances of the Southern Front in the area, first by fighting it directly then by deploying the National Defense Forces militia and Hezbollah against it. Now that the Syrian army has been reduced to only half of its human capacity, while Hezbollah has incurred thousands in losses in its ranks in its battles in Syria and Iraq, the regime has resorted to facilitating the access of ISIS to the south so that it attacks the Southern Front in the area. In the fall of 2014, there used to be no significant presence for ISIS in the south, and the Southern Front’s battles were mainly with the regime, the NDF, and Hezbollah as well as with Jabhat al-Nusra. Today, most of the Southern Front’s battles are against ISIS, though the Front is also continuing its offenses against regime targets, as seen in its recent takeover of the Syrian Army’s Base 52.
This and other losses by the regime have pushed it to change its strategy on the ground. Until recently, the regime had exercised control through being present in core urban centers across Syrian governorates, even if the rural peripheries in those areas were under opposition control. Now, Assad seems to be giving up many cities and is instead shifting the focus to holding core regime areas, mainly the Sahel (coast) in the west and Damascus. This is allowing ISIS to seek to expand its geographical presence in Syria in the areas abandoned by the regime. The more ISIS is strengthened, the more of a threat it poses to the Southern Front.
The Southern Front is also challenged by the rise of Jaysh al-Fateh. Saudi Arabia’s motivation behind the creation of Jaysh al-Fateh is not to empower Islamist groups because they are the preferred actors for Saudi Arabia (they are not), but to be pragmatic: Saudi Arabia has lost patience with the United States in seeking an end to the Syrian crisis, and is concerned about Iran’s embrace by the international community following the birth of a nuclear deal as well as about Riyadh’s own declining influence in the Middle East. Those concerns have spurred it to seek to put as much pressure on the Syrian regime as possible using the tools available on the ground so that Riyadh can set the trajectory of the transition in Syria and bolster its own regional influence.