The old adage that warns against believing everything in the news has never been truer than now, with respect to the current conflict in Syria. As battles rage throughout the country; a myriad of fighting groups post daily updates; state and opposition media offer competing narratives; and outside parties, including observer groups, the UN, and various nations, all present their own perspectives, it is becoming increasingly hard separate fact from fiction.
Consider this report from Agence France Presse yesterday, about a two-month-old alliance called the Southern Front said to consist of 30,000 fighters from over 55 “mainstream” rebel groups in the south:
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 weapons fall into the hands of extremists.
“The objective is to unify fragmented factions to topple the regime of [President Bashar] 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 Qunaitra near the disputed frontier with Israel and in the southern city of Deraa, 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 Yarmouk 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.
Jabawi and others insist their alliance has no place for the Nusra, the Syrian wing of Al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State of Iraq and Greater Syria (ISIS), 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.
“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.”
The problem with this feel-good story about these supposedly moderate rebels is that its central assertion, that the new group has nothing to do with the al Qaeda-affiliated Al Nusrah Front and its allies, is simply not true.
As we pointed out the other day, Al Nusrah and its frequent battle partner, the large Islamist coalition the Islamic Front, have been very active in the south recently as well as in other key provinces across the country. See Threat Matrix report, The shadowy flow of US weapons into Syria, which notes that Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front unleashed an offensive in April in the southern province of Deraa to unite territories they hold in Deraa and Quneitra.
The offensive in Deraa was announced by Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front two months ago; interestingly, that occurred about a week after the Southern Front emerged. The opposition activist group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) reported on Feb. 23 that “9 military fighting groups in western Der’a countryside , including Jabhat Al-Nusra and Ahrar Al Sham, have announced starting a new battle called ‘wa e’etasemo bi habli Allah jamian wala tafarako’ … [and that the announcement said] ‘we will target and hit 8 millitery zones belonging to 61th brigade , all these zones are very strategic in western Daraa province.'”
On April 25, the Syrian Observer reported that several Islamist military factions including the Al Nusrah Front had been successful in breaking the one-year-siege around the city of Nawa and seizing control of Tal al-Jabiya, the headquarters of Brigade 61. The SOHR similarly credited Al Nusrah as having a significant role in the fight for control of the strategic Tal al-Jabiya hill.
SOHR reported today that an Islamic Front field commander was killed in fighting with regime forces for control of Tal al-Jabiya, and yesterday that the Islamic Front and other Islamist fighters, joined by several rebel groups including the Yarmouk Brigade, had launched a new offensive to take over nearby Tal al Jamo’o and environs.
Most tellingly, the Al Nusrah Front itself posted a statement on its Twitter account on April 26 claiming the liberation of Tal al Jabiya hill during an assault that began at dawn on April 24 by “the lions from the al-Nusra Front in participation with other factions,” according to a translation of the statement by the SITE Intelligence group.
So the claim by Southern Front spokesman Jabawi that 16 factions of the Southern Front “liberated a strategic position belonging to Brigade 61” omits the critical fact that Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front were the decisive forces in the battle.
Al Nusrah’s statement continued:
Tal al-Jabiyah has great importance to the Nusayri regime, where it includes the 61st Brigade Headquarter, and it is one of the biggest brigades. The hill also includes very important reconnaissance stations in which are based Iranian and Russian stations, and jamming and advanced communication stations are present on the Hill. …. Through the liberation of Tal al-Jabiyah, the last stronghold of the 61st Brigade was finished and considered terminated, and all praise is due to Allah.
Similarly, Jabawi’s assurances that Al Nusrah has only has “limited influence in the south,” and that other Islamist groups in the south “are limited and not developing” ring false.
Note also that the Yarmouk Brigade, which is mentioned in the AFP article as a component of the Southern Front, teamed up in September with Al Nusrah and the Aknaf Bait al Maqdis (“Defenders of Jerusalem”), another jihadist group allied with al Qaeda, to take control of the border crossing between Deraa and Jordan. Like the Southern Front, the Yarmouk Brigade has featured in recent news coverage of the supposedly moderate Syrian rebels, in a New York Times front-page article on April 11.
What we are seeing, and will continue to see, is Western-backed units fighting alongside Islamist fighters from Al Nusrah and the Islamic Front, and these allegedly moderate units are increasingly being supplied with heavy weapons. Accompanying these developments is a parallel campaign in the Western news media that seeks to emphasize the presence of moderate Syrian rebel groups.
Be prepared to digest similar stories in the coming days and weeks as the West, anxious to find ways to justify the provision of further support to the rebels, continues to roll out new “moderate” rebel groups sanitized of the taint of al Qaeda and extremist links. In that vein, the Washington Post reported on April 27 about a recent change in US policy allowing the delivery of US-made antitank missiles via “friends of Syria” to vetted groups such as the Harakat Hazm.
An article in Foreign Policy yesterday mentioned that the CIA, which is in charge of providing weapons to Syrian rebel groups, is looking into incorporating technological devices such as fingerprint scanners into the weapons to make sure they remain in the hands of vetted groups and not those of Islamist fighters.
But the technology is not the hard part; it’s the vetting.