The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army announced earlier today that its fighters had captured the so-called UN Hill in Quneitra, a southwestern province in Syria. But the Al Nusrah Front, an official branch of al Qaeda, and Ahrar al Sham, an al Qaeda-linked group that is closely allied with Al Nusrah, have also posted images from the hill, saying their fighters drove the Assad regime’s forces out.
The simultaneous claims of success indicate that the Southern Front’s fighters likely participated in the battle alongside the jihadists, even though the FSA’s southern alliance has repeatedly rejected cooperation with Al Nusrah.
The current status of the hill, which is considered a strategic point on the approach to suburbs of Damascus, is not clear as of this writing. Some accounts on social media say that the Assad regime and its allies, including Hezbollah jihadists, have retaken the location.
In any event, the Southern Front, Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham all advertised their role in the battle on their respective social media accounts. A spokesmen for the Southern Front announced the “liberation” of the UN Hill on his Twitter feed. The Southern Front also published a statement claiming victory.
Just over 30 minutes before the FSA tweet, Al Nusrah Front posted a similar claim on one of its official feeds. Al Nusrah followed up with pictures from the scene of the fighting.
Separately, Ahrar al Sham tweeted a map showing the insurgents’ progress in the area. The images posted by Al Nusrah and Ahrar al Sham can be seen at the bottom of this article.
The Southern Front rejected collaboration with Al Nusrah Front
The Southern Front announced a new FSA-led offensive in Quneitra in June. At the time, the group’s spokesman, Issam Al Reis, said all of the participating factions had signed a “formal mutual defense pact” that explicitly excluded Al Nusrah from participating in the offensive.
The Southern Front has “prohibited #Nusra from joining this operation,” because it does “not share the vision for a free #Syria we are fighting for #FSA,” Al Reis wrote on his Twitter feed on June 16. His tweets can be seen on the right.
It wasn’t the first time the Southern Front distanced itself from Al Nusrah. In April, Reuters reported (“Southern Syria rebels set collision course with al Qaeda“) that groups belonging to the FSA alliance had “issued a strong statement condemning” Al Nusrah’s “ideology” and “rejecting any cooperation with it.” The statement declared the Southern Front to be the “sole military force representing the Syrian revolution” in the south.
Another spokesman for the Southern Front was quoted as saying, “It is not a call for war but they [Al Nusrah] will understand it that way, and if they want to fight they will be the losers.”
Just days after Al Reis’ public rejection of any cooperation with al Qaeda’s arm in Syria, Ahrar al Sham, Al Nusrah and their allies in the region announced the creation of a southern wing of Jaysh al Fateh (“Army of Conquest”). The jihadist-led coalition, which was founded on June 20, was clearly designed to be an alternative to the Southern Front. It was also intended to capitalize on the jihadist-led successes in the northern Idlib province. Jaysh al Fateh captured the city of Idlib in late March, and then overran much of the rest of the province in the weeks that followed. [For an overview of these jihadist-led coalitions throughout Syria, see LWJ report: Al Nusrah Front, allies form new coalition for battle in Aleppo.]
Some FSA groups rejected cooperation with “Jaysh al Fateh in the South,” but others reportedly joined it. Adding to the battlefield confusion, the Southern Front apparently fought alongside Ahrar al Sham just days before publicly rejecting any collaboration with Al Nusrah (Ahrar’s closest ally in Syria). On June 9, the Southern Front announced the “full liberation” of the Brigade 52 military base in the southern Deraa province. Ahrar al Sham released videos, maps and statements detailing its participation in the successful operation.
The status of the FSA’s Southern Front has been difficult to ascertain since this past summer. According to a recent account, FSA groups operating under its umbrella are peeling off and joining Ahrar al Sham.
Al Nusrah Front images from the fighting at UN Hill in Quneitra
Ahrar al Sham’s map of the situation in Quneitra, including the UN Hill: