Southern Front tries to disassociate itself from Al Nusrah

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.

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  • Anthony Celso says:

    This is very tired and repetitive
    analysis. Of course these groups will cooperate with Al Qaeda for they have common enemies. To intuit that they are ideologically sympathetic with Al Nusra is to say that the US was part of a communist conspiratorial alliance with Stalin against Nazi Germany
    Who do these people want to kill? Assad’s soldiers and their Hezbollah allies both of whom are enemies of the United States. It might be remembered that Hezbollah’s attacks in Lebanon killed hundreds of Americans in the early 1980’s. US interests in Syria from a cold calculating realpolike perspective is to prolong the war that pits two enemies of this country against each other. Limited aid to rebels is the best means to do this.

  • Lisa Lundquist says:

    Tony, I must say I think you missed my points, which were not that sympathies might be intuited to exist between the rebels and the extremists, but rather that:
    1. This new large reportedly moderate group, the Southern Front, contains factions that fight alongside Al Nusrah et al., and the group’s spokesman is lying about the relationship.
    2. An increased flow of US weapons and other support is going toward groups like this.
    3. It is not groups like the Southern Front that are calling the shots, it is Al Nusrah and the other powerful Islamist forces.
    4. A mainstream media outlet like AFP is blandly repeating the spokesman’s story without investigation.
    5. A media campaign appears to be underway to neutralize concerns that aid to the rebels will be diverted into the hands of the Islamists.
    Given the increasing ranks of the thousands of jihadist fighters in Syria, at this point they may well constitute the greater enemy than the Assad regime and Hezbollah.
    As for the realpolitik suggestion that the US should subsidize a prolongation of the war for its own interests, tell that to the Syrian people.

  • Stephanie says:

    I completely agree with the analysis. It seems that most of the Syrian rebel groups are interested in co-operating towards the common goal of ousting Assad. It’s a pragmatic issue, which is why it’s not a good idea to trust the “moderate” rebels.

  • Bill Roggio says:

    Lisa, Tony wrote a book that pushes the tired and repetitive narrative of a fragmented and defeated al Qaeda, so of course he bristles at anything that challenges this (his book is called Al Qaeda’s Post-9/11 Devolution The Failed Jihadist Struggle Against the Near and Far Enemy). Tony pushes the conventional wisdom / party line repeatedly here at LWJ, so we should expect no less. What he can’t explain is how al Qaeda has exploded into new theaters that it couldn’t dream of prior to 9/11 (Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Mali, Somalia, Nigeria, Egypt, Tunisia, Libya, etc.) while the US and NATo is withdrawing.
    A more apt WWII analogy for Tony would be, say, the Italians or Romanians siding with the Germans. Sure, Italian fascists weren’t full blown Nazis by any stretch, but they still sided with Nazi Germany on the battlefield.
    Stephanie clearly gets it.

  • Doogie says:

    (for the sake of this comment, every mention of rebels is referring to the “moderate” rebels; the jihadists in Syria aren’t really rebels in my view since their aims are loftier than just removing Assad from power) The CIA must be aware that at least some of the weapons they’re supplying to the rebels will end up in jihadist hands. Even if the rebels aren’t sharing them willingly, there are ways the jihadists have gotten their hands on them in the past; such as taking them by force, or possibly the weapons being sold by a less than faithful rebel commander or, as noted, they may not be vetted properly and are actually jihadists claiming to be rebels. If they are willing to accept this risk, then the question must be, “then why do it?”. What are the costs of inaction?
    I think there’s a sentiment within the US gov’t that if they do nothing, then a) the West will look like all talk and no walk when it comes to helping people who want to oppose a tyrannical, repressive dictator, and b) the rebels who aren’t religious extremists and may even want a democratic style of governance will feel abandoned by the West; making them more sympathetic to or show more support for the jihadi movement. And from some of the documentaries I’ve seen, that is a recurring comment made by the rebel groups; though, they’re probably partly saying such things to help convince western viewers to give them more military assistance.
    Aside from those two scenarios, after the Assad regime falls, what do you think will happen? The jihadists are there to stay, and they will keep fighting until, in their view, there is an Islamic government in Syria. The jihadists have said time and again that their goal is to reinstate a Caliphate for the Muslim world. They see Syria and Afghanistan as the first countries of this new Caliphate. Thus, after Assad falls, there will no doubt be another war between the jihadists and rebels to see who gets to be in charge of the new Syria. And if the rebels don’t have the weapons, then they definitely won’t have a shot.
    With all of that said though, I agree that giving the rebels anti-tank weapons are a bad idea. Don’t give them anything that can eventually be used against the heavy armor/aircraft of moderate Muslim governments in the Middle East.

  • Stephanie says:

    Also, I wouldn’t be too sure that the ideology at the heart of all of the so-called “moderates” is really much different than that of the jihadists, while their tactics may be.

  • Lisa Lundquist says:

    By the way, I am not the only one to express skepticism about the Southern Front. Back in March, Aron Lund at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace wrote, in an article called “Does the ‘Southern Front’ exist?” :
    “In the end, it is the supply of weapons that will matter most for both rebel advances and rebel unity, not words. But words may help unlock the storage rooms where those weapons are held, and that’s probably the way to understand the curious Southern Front statement.
    Rather than an initiative from the rebels themselves, word is that it was foreign officials that called on rebel commanders to sign a statement declaring their opposition to extremism, saying it was a precondition for getting more guns and money. Since beggars can’t be choosers, the commanders then collectively shrugged their shoulders and signed—but not so much to declare a new alliance as to help U.S. officials tick all the right boxes in their reports back home, hoping that this would unlock another crate of guns.”

  • Afaerl says:

    The war is stagnating. Israel may be left with TWO enemies on its Northern Frontier – Hezbullah in Lebanon and the jihadists in Southern Syria! In the event of a truce between them – they can cooperate – the jihadists may be free to attack Israel on the Golan. This may buy Assad time, and the Mujahedeen further credibility in the eyes of the Muslim masses. The less weapons they get, the better!


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