Analysis: The budding insurgency in southern Syria

Screenshot from yesterday’s video. It reads: “The Popular Resistance, Tuesday, February 5, 2019, promising more.”

Yesterday, a low-quality video depicting an IED attack on a regime checkpoint in southern Syria was uploaded to the internet. A relatively unknown group, the Popular Resistance, claimed credit within the video itself.

While this small outfit has claimed a series of sporadic attacks since its inception last fall, it nonetheless represents a budding insurgency in Syria’s southern areas. The efforts of the group, or other popup organizations, are a good indicator of what’s to come in a post-regime ‘victory’ Syria.

Following the Assad regime’s recapture of the southern provinces of Deraa and Quneitra last summer, tensions have remained high between the regime and former rebel groups operating in the province. Following the offensive by the regime and its allies, the rebel groups operating in the region largely surrendered or signed alleged amnesty agreements.

However, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights noted last September that the regime and its allies were mounting mass arrests of former rebel fighters in Deraa.

Formed in mid-November 2018, the Popular Resistance purports to be the vanguard of a new insurrection within the regime-held province of Deraa. Since its founding, it has claimed several attacks on regime targets.

This includes an ambush on a regime position near the southern city of Nawa late last November in which the group claimed to have killed two regime soldiers. Just a day after that assault, it claimed another on a separate regime position near Al Sanamayn with RPG’s and grenades.

In December, further attacks were claimed near Al Karak al Sharqi and Nafus. In January, the group reportedly stepped up its operations by claiming an assault on the regime’s air force intelligence building in Karak al Sharqi and another regime position in Ghabaghb on the same day. Not long after, it also claimed an attack on a regime barracks near Tafas.

Late last month, it also claimed to have targeted a Hezbollah commander in or near Damascus but this has not been independently confirmed.

Many other ambushes, attacks, and assassinations have been claimed by the group in Deraa. Most of these have been confirmed by Syrian or other Arabic-language press. However, yesterday’s video is the first to show the group’s campaign to the wider world.

It has also reportedly stepped up its efforts to recruit individuals into its rebellion, as well as incite anti-regime and anti-Iran sentiments among the younger generation of Deraa. Capitalizing on the local’s anger of conscription of civilians into the regime, the Popular Resistance group has reportedly worked to recruit new fighters into its fold. It is unclear at this stage how successful this reported drive is, however.

That said, anti-regime and anti-Iranian sentiments have popped up elsewhere in Deraa. Graffiti with the tag “the Southern Companies” have been spotted in Karak al Sharqi, but it is unclear if this purported group is even real or meant to imply that the new rebellion is larger than it actually is.

Not much is known about the inner workings of the Popular Resistance, but based on what it has posted online thus far, some information can be gleaned. Its logo, for instance, very clearly uses the colors and flag of the Syrian revolution, indicating a Free Syrian Army (FSA) branding.

Moreover, statements released by the organization are also clearly based on the formatting of statements released in the past by FSA groups.

It is more than likely that the group was formed by and/or contains former members of FSA or other rebel groups from Deraa. The manufacture and successful deployment of an IED also suggests some degree of training and/or experience. Ambushes and other guerrilla tactics used in previous attacks by the group also speak to this experience.

So far, yesterday’s video of the IED remains the only visual evidence of the group’s campaign against the regime and its allies in southern Syria. It remains to be seen if the Popular Resistance will be able to maintain a low-level insurgency or be wiped out by any regime effort or offensive to rout the fledgling rebellion.

Nevertheless, the group known as the Popular Resistance demonstrates that even as Assad and his cohorts regain territory in Syria, the civil war is far from over.

Caleb Weiss is an editor of FDD's Long War Journal and a senior analyst at the Bridgeway Foundation, where he focuses on the spread of the Islamic State in Central Africa.

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