Rebels in southern Syria say they’ve united tens of thousands of fighters and rejected the extremism and infighting that have plagued the uprising elsewhere, but still want for external support.
The so-called Southern Front was created around two months ago and includes some 30,000 fighters from more than 55 mainstream rebel groups operating from the Jordanian border to the outskirts of Damascus and the Golan Heights, the rebels say.
The new alliance is in part aimed at alleviating Western concerns that providing greater aid to the fractious rebels would bolster Al-Qaeda-inspired groups and see heavy weapons fall into the hands of extremists.
“The objective is to unify fragmented factions to topple the regime of (President Bashar) al-Assad and work on creating a democratic state that would preserve the rights of all segments and minorities,” Ibrahim al-Jabawi, a former police brigadier general turned spokesman for the alliance, told AFP in Amman.
“These factions have led significant battles against Assad’s forces and achieved victories,” notably in the Golan city of Quneitra near the disputed frontier with Israel and in the southern city of Daraa, where the uprising began in March 2011, Jabawi said.
“In recent days for example, fighters from more than 16 factions liberated a strategic position that belonged to Brigade 61,” a Syrian army brigade responsible for guarding the Golan frontier, he said.
Abu al-Majd, a spokesman for the Yarmuk Brigade, one of the more powerful members of the alliance, said the front had been active since the failure of Geneva peace talks earlier this year.
Saudi Arabia, one of the main backers of the uprising against Assad, has strong influence over rebels in the south, where it has worked with Jordan to help unify the various factions, according to Syrian opposition sources.
– No place for extremism –
Jabawi and others insist their alliance has no place for Al-Nusra Front, the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, a rogue jihadist group that has been battling other rebels in the north since the start of the year.
“Division does not lead to positive results. That is why we worked to unify moderate factions under one umbrella,” Jabawi told AFP.
“Al-Nusra, which has limited influence in the south, does not have any role in the southern front,” he said, adding that other Islamist groups in the south “are limited and not developing.”
Since early January, ISIL has been at war with Al-Nusra and other Islamist and moderate rebel groups, which accuse it of kidnapping, torturing and killing activists and rebels opposed to its strict version of Islamic governance.
“We do not want the situation of south to reach the situation of the north,” said Abu al-Majd.
In a bid to prevent the infighting that has plagued the rebels since the start of the uprising, the southern alliance has established a court in Daraa’s central prison to resolve disputes.
“When there is a problem between (rebel) groups, they can go to the court to solve it. We have judges and lawyers who are working there. We are recruiting even guards and other employees,” Abu al-Majd said.
“At the same place we are planning to build a big hospital.”
– Heavy weapons needed –
Despite projecting an image of unity, moderation and discipline, rebels in the south say they have not received the kind of heavy weapons needed to tip the balance against Assad’s army.
And Abu al-Majd said the regime troops based in the south are more formidable than in other parts of the country.
“The regime keeps one of the most important concentration of forces in the south. It is not easy to move around…” he said.
“We have enough light weapons but we need weapons that would help us deal with air strikes and tanks,” Jabawi said.
“We hope that Syria’s friends would help us and provide us with such weapons, particularly anti-aircraft guns… to help liberate all southern parts until we reach Damascus.”
At least 20 US-made TOW anti-tank missiles have been supplied to a moderate rebel group fighting in the north by a “Western source” as part of a pilot programme, a rebel official told AFP earlier this month.
But it’s unclear whether similar plans are in the works for the south, and such weapons would be of little use against Assad’s air force, which has been employed to devastating effect against the rebels.
Abu Hafs, a fighter from the Martyrs of Huran Brigade, said rebels in the south suffer from shortages of even non-lethal aid.
“We do not have enough hospitals and the ones we have lack basic things,” he told AFP in the northern Jordanian city of Irbid.