Arming the 'moderate' rebels in the Syrian south
A front page story in yesterday's New York Times features Syrian rebel commanders and coordinators complaining that weapons and other aid provided by the US are merely "buying time and giving people the illusion that there is aid when really there is not." While the US has given the rebels over $260 million in "nonlethal support," the article contends, the aid has not significantly helped or even convinced them that the US wants them to win.
Some caution on the US' part in arming the rebels is warranted, however.
One of the rebel commanders depicted in the article is Bashar al Zoabi, head of the Yarmouk Brigade. Portrayed sympathetically (he is photographed at home with his young son, in the article's online version), Zoabi heads a militia that has fought alongside the Al Nusrah Front, al Qaeda's affiliate in Syria, on several occasions.
The "moderate Islamist" Yarmouk Brigade (or Yarmouk Martyrs' Brigade) was formed in Deraa in August 2012 and fights mainly along the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights, according to the BBC. In the past it has been linked to the Free Syrian Army's Supreme Military Council, but the New York Times article does not mention either the FSA or the SMC. In fact, the Yarmouk Brigade (Shuhada al Yarmouk Brigade) was one of 60 groups that defected from the Free Syrian Army in October [see LWJ report, Free Syrian Army continues to fracture as more units defect].
In March and May last year, the Yarmouk Brigade seized UN peacekeepers in the Golan Heights, releasing them only after "tough negotiations."
Also in March 2013, the Yarmouk Brigade fought alongside the Al Nusrah Front in the storming of an air defense base as well as military checkpoints in Deraa, which effectively put them in control of a 25-kilometer stretch of the border from the Golan to Jordan. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, allies seize border area across the Golan Heights.]
In September, the Yarmouk Brigade teamed up with Al Nusrah again to conduct another joint operation. Along with the Aknaf Bait al Maqdis, or Defenders of Jerusalem, a jihadist outfit allied with al Qaeda that operates in Deraa, they spearheaded a weeklong battle that culminated in the capture of the Deraa border crossing into Jordan. [See LWJ report, Al Nusrah Front, Free Syrian Army seize border crossing to Jordan.]
As a September article in Al Monitor on the capture of the Deraa border crossing pointed out, Yarmouk Brigade commander Zoabi denied that the Free Syrian Army's military council played any role in the takeover. Jordan, meanwhile, kept a stony silence: "A prominent Jordanian minister did tell Al-Hayat that Amman 'was closely monitoring the developing military operation near its border, but that it would not acknowledge the control of extremist factions over any border post connecting it with Damascus.'"
An Al Jazeera reporter noted at the time: "'The border crossing has been closed for nearly two years now. It was closed while it was under the control of the Syrian army ...[s]o it definitely won't be opened by Jordan now, especially that the rebels who captured it are not part of the Saudi-backed military council in Deraa, whom Jordan had some security coordination with.'"
Yesterday's New York Times article quotes Zoabi describing the current state of that border: "The situation is good. Jordan controls the border and arms are not brought in randomly." His comment bears some similarity to the one he made back on Sept. 25 after seizing the Deraa crossing with the help of Al Nusrah and another Islamist brigade: "We now control approximately 70% of the crossing that separates Syria from Jordan, and we expect to be in complete control of it within the coming hours."
Despite a general dearth of reporting on the current situation along Syria's border with Jordan, the New York Times article appears eager to assure readers that the rebels' Jordanian border "control room" is under control, and that "the largely stagnant southern battlefield ... is heavily influenced by outside powers whose main goals are to limit the rise of extremists and preserve stability in Jordan."
The Yarmouk Brigade, like other "moderate Islamist" fighting groups in Syria, has attempted to accommodate Western and Gulf backers while adhering to Islamist tenets. A recent article in Al Monitor notes that from its beginning, the group's branding has deliberately combined both jihadist and secular themes and imagery.
Nonetheless, the US and allies have apparently embraced the group as a "moderate." Al Monitor reports that the US has agreed to provide advanced weaponry, including antiaircraft missiles, to the Saudi-backed Yarmouk Brigade "on the assumption that the arms provided to the Southern Front would be less likely to 'fall into the hands of al-Qaeda-inspired groups,'" including the Islamic Front (another group that has been described as "moderate Islamist").
It should also be noted that the New York Times article's claim that "[i]In the south, the Nusra Front, Al Qaeda's main affiliate in Syria, is not a leading power" may be delusory. Over the past two months, Al Nusrah has not only led most of the rebel offensives in the north, but has also been heavily involved in fighting in the southern province of Damascus, as well as in more central Homs. In addition, Al Nusrah targeted regime buses in the southern province of Deraa on Feb. 18, and launched a joint offensive with the Islamic Front's Ahrar al Sham in Deraa on Feb. 23.
The problem facing the US and other backers of the 'moderate opposition' is that the Islamists are dominating the fighting on all major rebel fronts in Syria. On a purely logistical level, it is becoming increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to find truly 'moderate' groups to arm.