CAIRO— Syria’s Western and Gulf-backed rebels are likely to try to adjust their military axis in the coming weeks to re-focus more on the south of the country in their three-year-long struggle against President Bashar al-Assad in a shift that analysts say is a bid to strengthen the moderate armed opposition at the expense of hard-line Islamists.
The goal of the readjustment, if it can be pulled off by leaders of the highly fractious rebels, would be to help the Western-favored rebels bypass insurgent infighting in the north that has seen a loose coalition of some of the biggest moderate and Islamist brigades battle for weeks against an al-Qaida offshoot.
More than 2000 have died in the internecine struggle that erupted in rebel-held areas across northern and eastern Syria last month.
The attempt to effect a strategic refocus coincides with a reappraisal by Saudi Arabian and U.S. officials of the best ways to provide support for the rebellion while trying to ensure that additional arms supplied go directly to rebels favored by the Saudis and Washington DC and don’t leak to jihadist groups and other Islamist hard-liners, say U.S. and Gulf officials privately.
With no progress coming from Geneva peace talks, the Obama administration’s rhetoric has sharpened in recent days.
Shift is due in part to failure of Geneva talks
In meetings with U.S. lawmakers Secretary of State John Kerry signaled there would be a renewed effort to bolster moderate rebels, and earlier this week he publicly cautioned that the United States and its allies would soon have to make critical decisions on how to respond to the failed peace talks in Geneva, the second round of which concluded amid bitter recriminations last week.
The planned shift to focus militarily more on the south was reportedly discussed last week at a meeting in Washington DC of intelligence chiefs from the U.S., Gulf countries, Turkey and Jordan. But it is already facing its first major hurdle – getting all moderate rebel commanders to sign on.
Some commanders are objecting to the appointment on February 16 of a new overall leader of the moderate Free Syrian Army to oversee the shift in military focus. The official commanders of the FSA’s five battlefield fronts are resisting the sacking of Gen. Salim Idris and his replacement Brig. Gen. Abdul-Illah al-Bachir, who defected from the Syrian army last year, saying that the change is being made at the bidding of Saudi Arabia and the U.S.. Al-Bachir is based in Quneitra on Syria’s southern border.
A southern military strategy using Jordan rather than Turkey as the main arms supply route for the rebellion could inject new vigor into the uprising and allow the Western-backed moderates to escape the rebel infighting in the north, says Aram Nerguizian, a military expert at the Washington DC-based think the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It is the only frontline left – and it isn’t clear for how long – where elements of the more mainstream armed opposition have relative operational mobility,” he said. But he warns disunity even among the moderate rebels will make it hard to shift the strategic axis or “find a stable resolution to their own internal problems” and disputes.
Moderates stronger in the south
The uprising against President Assad has been marked by rebel disarray and disagreement on tactics and over ideology and has seen in the past year the rise of al-Qaida offshoots. In November, the FSA suffered a major reversal when some of the largest brigades broke way to form their own hard-line Islamist coalition.
Moderate rebel forces are stronger in the south than the north and are reportedly being reinforced with about 200 new fighters a month freshly trained in American-sponsored training camps in Jordan say U.S. officials privately.
Says Charles Lister, a Mideast expert with the think tank the Brookings Institution: “Moderate forces are in a more advantageous position in southern Syria as compared to other regions of the country. Rebel operations have already increased in intensity in southern Syria over recent weeks. The appointment of Al-Bachir suggests the rebels’ Supreme Military Council and its external state backers have made a strategic decision to re-focus on southern Syria as the key bulwark of the moderate armed opposition.”
He adds though: “It would be naive to present the south as free of hard-line Islamists and extremist groups. They retain a considerable presence in southern Syria and they are involved in almost all key strategic offensives. As such, a bolstering of moderates in the south is entirely feasible, but any sophisticated weapons provided to moderate forces are highly likely to be shared or eventually passed onto more hard-line groups.”
Jordan was a key zone for the provision of arms from foreign backers in early 2013 but rebels say there was a petering out of supplies when it became clear that there was considerable leakage to jihadists earmarked for moderates.
Analyst Nerguizian says the window of opportunity for the rebels of using the south more is narrowing quickly. Assad forces have pursued strong offensives close by along the Lebanese border that would impact seriously a southern strategy. “The regime and its allies have really shifted a great deal of the momentum in their favor, especially near and around Damascus and along the frontier with Lebanon. I do not see the opposition reversing that,” he says.