Part Three: The Southern Front
“You don’t need to work for an intelligence agency to serve them; you just need to be stupid enough to not know you are being used.”–Abu Sulayman al-Muhajir, Jabhat an-Nusra Jurist
The fighting between ISIS on the one side and the Western-backed FSA and the Islamic Front (IF) on the other raised early on the question about America’s position regarding Jabhat al-Nusra. JAN immediately dissociated itself from the conflict going on “between their Jihadist brothers” but that didn’t seem to prevent sporadic acts of aggression against JAN by FSA-linked brigades. However, an escalating trend in both the attacks on the grounds and the rhetoric against the AQ-branch could be identified. In late January, Anas Al Anadah, a senior leader in the SNC, stated that: “Jabhat al-Nusrah is a terrorist organization and the FSA will break the head of Jabhat al-Nusrah as it did to Daesh [ISIS].” Around the same time, a JAN source claimed that brigades based in Qalamoun, southern Syria, began excluding JAN from military operations. The source further stated, “Financial and Military support had been promised to groups that avoided working with JAN and that the FSA as well as ‘Islamic’ brigades avoided and purposely left out JAN.”
Shortly after, a shift of focus became apparent by the U.S. and its allies to southern Syria, and what was called the “Southern Front.” An article published by Reuters in January reported that funding to “moderate” Syrian rebel factions in the south, coincidentally the heartland of JAN, had been approved and a variety of arms had begun flowing. Reports of rebel forces being trained in Jordan by U.S. troops also spread, with the efforts expected to expand following indications given by the Obama administration. It was said that the initiative would be founded on counter-terrorism principals, aimed at isolating and combating Islamists linked to Al-Qaeda as well as securing borders.
It wasn’t until mid-February that the shift to the south became official. Foreign intelligence liaisons, according to a logistics support officer attached to a southern rebel brigade, summoned the leaders of more than 50 brigades to a secret command centre in Jordan, 75 kilometres north of the capital, Amman. They were instructed to join a new umbrella opposition group that would be called the “Southern Front,” a logistics support officer attached to a southern rebel brigade said in an interview with Los Angeles Times. Ahmed Nehmeh, a former Syrian air force colonel who defected to become a head of the Free Syrian Army’s Derra Military Council (DMC), would lead the Southern Front which now includes some 30,000 fighters. Each participating unit would still retain its own commander and autonomy, but all would coordinate on the battlefield, the rebels were told.
During the meeting in Amman, brigade leaders were instructed to provide rosters of fighters for accounting purposes, the support officer explained. The insurgents would then receive cash payments to cover the salaries, according to the officer’s account. “We wrote down the information of each fighter, with pictures of their brigade IDs,” said the support officer. “It is now all organized.” An FSA commander claimed his brigade had suffered significant defections during the preceding months with up to 2,000 fighters, nearly half of his brigade, joining “better funded Islamist brigades.” That changed however in February, he claimed, when an intelligence operative from a country he refused to name handed him an envelope full of cash—salaries for his remaining combatants.
“The objective was to unify fragmented factions to topple the Assad regime and to establish a secular democratic state,” Ibrahim al-Jabawi, a former police brigadier general turned spokesman for the alliance, told AFP in Amman. Activist reports suggest that rebels that wish to join the Southern Front must be moderate and open to a dialogue with the Assad regime. The Southern Front represents “the voice of moderation and the strong arm of the Syrian people,” their official statement declared in Arabic. “Sectarianism and extremism have no place in [our] society and should have no place in the future of Syria.” Jabawi and others insist their alliance has no place for Nusra or ISIS. Meanwhile, the FSA fighters in the south soon got their rhetoric in line with that of the West, accusing JAN of launching a wave of assassinations and kidnappings against FSA fighters in southern Syria. After JAN had kidnapped and executed a low-level battalion leader, Fadi Qarqamas, who was accused of colluding with the government and FSA commanders convened to decide whether they should fight JAN. ISIS largely absent in the south, one commander said: “We are now convinced that JAN in the south is like ISIS in the north.” The popularity of JAN among the rebels and the resilience demonstrated by ISIS in the north in their war with US-backed rebel groups, however, deterred the Southern Front from taking up arms against JAN at that time.
Naturally, Jordan, which borders southern Syria and which views the armed Islamist rebellion across its borders as a direct threat to the Kingdom’s own security, became the staging ground for Western efforts through the Joint International Operations Room in Amman. The Command centre, known as “the operations room,” has been a poorly guarded secret since a New York Times expose in March 2013. It is said to be a well-run operation staffed by Senior Jordanian intelligence and high-ranking military officials from 14 countries, including the US, European nations, and Arabian Gulf states. The military and intelligence personnel plan missions and channels vehicles, sniper rifles, mortars, heavy machine guns, small arms and ammunition to FSA units. According to FSA factions in Dar’a, the majority of their supplies―sometimes as much as 80 percent ―is channeled to them via the command centre. In December, FSA fighters in the south claimed the command centre had also begun facilitating and coordinating training of rebels in both Jordan and KSA. “There were 80 fighters sent to Saudi last month for training in military communications. In total there have been a few hundred getting training. They come back fully equipped‒each with a personal
weapon, a pickup lorry for every squad of five men, a heavy machine gun for each squad, plus clothing, boots and that kind of thing,” an FSA commander revealed. “There was training before but it is getting better now,” he added.
The assistance given to the FSA comes, however, with many restrictions. As expected, FSA units have had to pledge that they would not transfer weapons to militant Islamist groups. However, the influence supplied by the command centre seems to go beyond mere strategy. The command centre allegedly receives advance notice of upcoming military assaults, and only assists with weapons after approval by officials at the centre of the attacks. “When we want to make an operation, we arrange for one of our men to have an informal meeting with a military liaison officer from the operations room and they meet up, in a hotel or somewhere in Amman, and talk through the plan. If the liaison officer likes our idea, he refers it to a full meeting of the operations room and a few days later we go there and make a formal presentation of the plan,” the FSA official said. The officials at the command centre then make adjustments to battlefield tactics. “We run through all the numbers, what we need in terms of men and weapons, and when we’ll get it. It’s all detailed, it’s done in a very exact way,” the FSA official said. For some FSA fighters, this restricts their ability to operate successfully in the battlefield; furthermore, the international backing was not sufficient to let them make major advances. “In the summer there was a meeting with the operations room and all of the FSA units in Dar’a and we were told very clearly what the rules are. They [the command centre] said we are not to attack major regime military installations without approval, that we are only to engage in hit-and-run operations and should not try to hold territory because the regime’s air power means it can hit us if we do,” said an FSA fighter briefed on the talks.
One particular incident highlights the dynamics of the relationship between the FSA fighters and the officials at the command centre. On the 25th of March, according to The National, the officials stationed in the command centre were on the brink of ordering air strikes against what they referred to as “strategic weapons” storage in southern Syria “to make sure the weapons inside did not fall into the hands of Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels.”
This high-level security base contained a bunker-type warehouse that was considered off-limits, according to a rebel officer who had been there in early 2011. The security was even greater than other bases where ballistic missiles were stored elsewhere in the country.
Additional indications that the Tal Al Jabiyeh base held top-secret weaponry became evident when local leaders from besieged areas, including Nawa, met with the governor of Dar’a province, Mohammad Khaled Al Hanous. The goal of the oppositional leaders’ meeting with Al Hanous was to request that food be allowed into the province. However, reports from that meeting stated that Hanous responded by threatening that if the oppositional forces came near Tal Al Jabiyah then the regime would destroy the city of Nawa. Fighting raged on despite the threats by Hanous and the likelihood of the Tal Al Jabiyeh facility becoming under rebel control increased which prompted the command centre to begin demanding strict guarantees from rebel forces. The command centre demanded that rebels return any weapons stored in a “white, reinforced concrete bunker with thick metal, electrically operated shutters blocking its east facing entrance.”
On a tense Tuesday evening, officials in the command centre warned rebel forces, including JAN, that Israeli jets were prepared to bomb a bunker less than 8km from the border with Israel. The rebel forces were warned that if they did not provide the guarantee the command centre required that the Israeli airstrike would be imminent and that it would destroy the entire compound. This provocation was passed on through a messenger to Jabhat al-Nusra’s emir in Dar’a province. The Nusra leader agreed to the ultimatum, along with all other rebel forces in the area.
As dawn approached on February 26, rebels were once again approached by the Amman command centre and warned that an international operation directed at the bunker was imminent. Due to the rebels still seeking to seize control of Tal Al Jabiyeh, the command centre’s logistics area ceased the supply of all weapons to any assaulting forces. This was to successfully delay their advance on the bunker. Unfortunately, without supplies, the rebels were forced to consolidate their positions around the facility rather than to infiltrate as previously planned. However, the next 48 hours proved formidable, with regime units being reinforced and heavily pushing back against the rebels. The denial of weapons supplies to rebel units in the area from the command centre suggests that the opposition’s international backers were not in favor of proceeding with the attack on Tal Al Jabiyeh.
The FSA’s inability, or indisposition, to seize ground from the Syrian army is evident throughout Syria. In April, the SRF in Dar’a, joined up with JAN to capture strategic hilltops from the regime in southwestern Quneitra province overlooking the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights. One media coordinator embedded with the SRF in Quneitra province, Abu Omar Golani, said that the FSA had tried for over a year to liberate the hills with no success until Nusra joined the fight.
Even timely retreats can be attributed to some FSA-faction’s reluctance to confront the SAA. On March 16, the Syrian army backed by Hezbollah declared victory in Yabroud, the long-contested village in Qalamoun that functioned as a rebel supply line and borders the M5 highway which connects the regime strongholds Damascus to Latakia. A spokesman of JAN, which had been leading the battles from the rebels’ side, claimed the town was “delivered to the regime by FSA factions.” FSA brigades, which now belong to the Southern Front had retreated from their battlefronts without coordinating with JAN, forcing JAN to leave the town the following day in the face of a siege. In an interview, a rebel commander, Col. Said Swaid, said he left Yabroud that day at dawn after several rebel battalions “suddenly pulled out causing panic and fear.” He said a deal had been struck with Syrian government forces. “I saw the betrayal with my own eyes,” he went on to say, “rebels walking with the regime army.” A couple of days later, Former FSA fighters in Yabroud, appeared in a pro-Assad protest on state TV (Ikhbariya) broadcasting from Yabroud, Syria. This very same plot was repeated when the regime lifted the siege to Aleppo Central Prison on May 22.
Perhaps most profound however is the testimony of Ahmed Nehmeh, following his arrest by JAN on the pretext of colluding with foreign intelligence agencies and the Syrian regime. In his recorded confession, Nehmeh, who was called the “key link between Western and Arab intelligence agencies and moderate rebels in southern Syria” by The National, claimed foreign intelligence services orchestrated “a disastrous military defeat” for the opposition forces in Dar’a last year in May in the strategic town of Khirbet Ghazaleh.
While the video suggested he had been beaten during the three preceding days of interrogation, JAN sources claimed “Nehmeh confessed to everything without being tortured. For the first two days he was well treated, then he was beaten but it was only a light torture.”
The defeat that Nehmeh was said to have orchestrated was in Khirbet Ghazaleh, on the Damascus-Deraa motorway, when Rebels were beaten back after 60 days of heavy fighting just when they appeared to have secured a victory. After Col. Nehmeh unexpectedly had taken charge of the battle, much-needed weapons shipments he oversaw failed to arrive and rebel units began pulling out. In his confession, Nehmeh’s claimed “the donor countries” had contacted him and ordered him to pull rebel units out of the town. Nehmeh specifically mentioned Jordanian intelligence with which he was closely affiliated while living in Amman in a building protected by government agents. He claimed Western and Arab intelligence agencies engineered a victory for forces loyal to the Assad regime because JAN forces were playing a major role in the Khirbet Ghazaleh attack. Although it is difficult to ascertain the veracity of the information presented, the explanation accords with rumours that had surfaced ever since the battle for Khirbet Ghazaleh.
“We have moved from one failure to another and this is the fault of the donor countries who are manipulating us and they are implementing their policies and they do not want the Islamic project to succeed or that there be an Islamic power on the ground,” he said in the confession.
A source close to al-Nusra in Dar’a said Col. Nehmeh admitted to conspiring with foreign intelligence agencies and to selling information to the Syrian regime―in effect, acting as a double agent. “Nehmeh would give advance notice to the regime of planned rebel attacks, he helped get rebel leaders killed.” In addition, according to the JAN-Jurist, Sami Oride, Ahmad Nehmeh also confessed that Ahmad Al-Jarba stole USD 75 million which was sent to support the “Revolution.”
Despite the fact that many rebel leaders including Bashar Zoubi, the leader of the Yarmouk Brigade, publicly called for Nehmeh to face trial for mismanagement after the surprise fall, supporting the accusation by JAN, Nehmeh retains the support of more than a dozen FSA units. Because of this, Nehmeh’s capture has raised tensions in Dar’a and the arrest might very well be the catalyst need to launch a full-scale attack on JAN in the South, similar to those attacks that were launched against ISIS in the North in January.
As has been indicated throughout this article, the Syrian conflict bares much resemblance to the war in Iraq. Perhaps a look at Iraq might indicate what the future holds for Syria? The marginalization of Sunnis only increased after the last U.S. troops left Iraq. In late December, Maliki’s sectarian troops attacked Sunni protestors that had had been railing against Maliki’s Shiite-dominated government for more than a year. Although the protests were mostly peaceful, security forces responded harshly, detaining thousands of Sunni men without charges and, in one encampment, touching off a spasm of violence that left hundreds of civilians dead. Across the Sunni heartland, north and west of Baghdad, the town squares filled with angry crowds and the rhetoric grew more extreme. Soon after, an armed uprising in Iraq began.
I therefore choose to conclude this article with a very powerful verse from the 29th Surah of the Holy Quran, Sūrat l-ʿankabūt (The Spider).
“The example of those who take allies other than Allah is like that of the spider who takes a home. And indeed, the weakest of homes is the home of the spider, if they only knew (41)”
Written in May 2014 (Source)