Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army battle Assad regime for UN Hill in southern Syria

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

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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

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Ahrar al Sham’s map of the situation in Quneitra, including the UN Hill:

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Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for The Long War Journal.

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10 Comments

  • mike merlo says:

    the Russians will bomb the Hill & surrounding area into dust

  • colin says:

    Wondering if the Southern Front is setting themselves up for a negotiated peace with the regime?

    • mike merlo says:

      @ colin

      3 things to know about Putin:
      1) he’s a committed Russian Nationalist,
      2) he ‘sees’ himself as the principal benefactor/protector of the Slavic People
      3) he’s a devoted/staunch supporter of the Russian Orthodox Church

      concerning a negotiated settlement with elements opposing the Assad Regime I can’t find the article but I read something over the last 24 48 hours where Putin said he would like to come to some arrangement with those not affiliated or easily calved from AQ & definitely not ISIS/ISIL/IS

      its also interesting to note that following the collapse of the Soviet Union Russia was soon caught up in serious rebellions in Central Asia particularly Tajikistan not to mention Chaos in the Caucasus Region & the slight Yeltsin felt by Clinton concerning the Balkans with Putin as his # 2 no less at the time. Besides the “slight” Yeltsin had asked the USA, hence Clinton, for help in Central Asia. None was forthcoming. Most everybody has short memories Putin doesn’t.

      • teoc2 says:

        speaking of short memories…in regards to the collapse of the Soviet Union, one name you didn’t drop was Afghanistan, the last country Putin’s KGB failed miserably in.

        you also forgot the the 4th and 5th thing to know about Putin—

        4) he is sitting a top a collapsing economy
        5) he is now fighting wars on three fronts [Ukaraine, jihadis in his backyard and now Syria] with two of them poised to do to Putin’s Novorossiya what Afghanistan did to the USSR.

        and never forget that the ‘R’ in ‘USSR’ always stood for Russia for all KGB officers.

        • mike merlo says:

          @ teoc2

          since when did a stagnant or shrinking economy become the defining metric as to whether or not a country is capable of waging a war? The USA & NAZI Germany certainly put that little myth to rest. Without a doubt, no pun intended, parts of the Russian Economy are ‘booming’ right now. The Russian people are very resilient & are quite capable of putting up with extreme hardship as they’ve amply demonstrated in the past. Their hatred of Muslim extremism far surpasses anything we in the West or Europe possibly harbor.

          Of the 3 so-called fronts you single out one of them is on Russia’s border whilst the other is an internal problem. Unlike the USA who was in the midst of a 2 Front War thousands of miles distant. It should also be noted that Russia is in the ‘midst’s’ of ramping up on a 4th Front in Central Asia. Underestimating Putin under the present circumstances is a seriously gross miscalculation. Putin/Russia is receiving a lot more Financial/Moral/Diplomatic support than is being spoken of in the Mainstream Media. He is far far from being alone in this endeavor.

          …and never forget the “R” in USSR stood for Republics punditry withstanding

    • mike merlo says:

      @ colin

      http://www.ft.com/cms/s/0/2d20d6de-6ce5-11e5-8171-ba1968cf791a.html#axzz3oEHvT7ru
      Even as Russia upped its military efforts, however, President Vladimir Putin also signalled willingness to restart diplomatic negotiations over Syria’s future — albeit on his terms.

      “We understand that such conflicts must end with a political solution,” Mr Putin said on Wednesday, adding that he had discussed the idea with French president François Hollande of a negotiation between Mr Assad and moderate rebel groups to create a united front against the Islamist group Isis and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra in the region.

  • Brian says:

    FSA & Al Nusra have been working together in Quneitra for over a year. It was Nusra in 2014 that added impetus to local rebels to advance. Before their arrival the battles in Quneitra were stagnant – with both FSA & SAA happy enough with the status Quo. Nusra were (and still are) key in the steady advance of southern ‘rebels’.
    SAA tactic of trying to hold the line is and will continue to fail. If Syrian Gov want to keep Quneitra it will have to go on the offensive and re-take areas lost to ‘rebels’ including Quneitra border crossing.

  • James says:

    This guy (a$$ad) has literally got just about everybody else in this world over there fighting his war for him. What a joke a$$ad is. Turn against him, O Syrian army. He has made you into nothing but a scarecrow army. Is keeping a$$ad in power really worth the pain, misery and anguish he has put you and the Syrian people through? It is a$$ad’s war more then anything else. a$$ad is a curse. a$$ad is a jinx.

    • irebukeu says:

      With ‘ Christians to Lebanon, Alawites to the grave’ being the battle cry. I’d keep right on fighting right next to Assad IF repeat IF a was an Alawite Syrian. His fate would be my fate. I think they know what is at stake pretty clear. They will keep right on fighting for their very lives no matter what we think of Assad.

  • rtloder says:

    FSA made a come back straight after Mr. Putin said he wouldn’t target them and is willing to give them a seat at the table.
    Can’t argue with that.
    But Zawahiri will not consent his animals being used by FSA like toilet paper.
    FSA has to go the same way as the barefoot Army did in Libya or FSA is a greater treat to al-Qa’eda than Assad.
    Also I can see the Ba’athist contingent in Iraq losing their respect for Baghdadi.
    Polar opposites both an advantage to anti Western intervention concurrently in Syria and Iraq.

Iraq

Islamic state

Syria

Aqap

Al shabaab

Boko Haram

Isis