The moderate, secular Southern Front is gaining ground in the birthplace of Syria's revolution. But can it survive long enough to tip the balance against the Islamic State and Assad?
Syria’s civil war is heading toward a point of no return. Advances by the Islamic State (IS) in eastern and northern Syria and the resurgence of other jihadi organizations in northwestern Syria are pushing the remnants of the so-called “moderate” armed opposition squarely into the Syrian regime’s line of fire. Any hope that a secular, nationalist movement can govern post-Assad Syria is rapidly waning.
In the south of the country, however, an important force could represent an alternative to both the brutality of the regime and the jihadis. A coalition of secular and nationalist rebels known as the Southern Front (SF) has been able to hold territory for many months in the governorate of Daraa, 90 miles south of Damascus. Its model of rule deserves greater scrutiny: The coalition, which binds together roughly 50 armed groups, has generated a singular example of civil-military governance in Syria — creating a “third way” of local governance that threatens Bashar al-Assad’s depiction of the Syrian opposition movement as extremists and terrorists.
Since 2013, the SF coalition has relied on a combination of strategies to hold ground in Daraa. It has co-opted and forged tactical alliances with the al Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front; it has coordinated with the local militias and the tribes in the areas; and it is holding the military and ideological line against IS, al-Nusra Front, and other militant Salafist organizations, while fighting off the advances of the Assad regime and its auxiliary forces.
The SF coalition falls under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army, but has generally disassociated itself from the political opposition, the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), on the grounds that the SNC has lost legitimacy because it is primarily composed of exiles. Several of the most powerful rebel groups in southern Syria are active members of the coalition — such as Liwa al-Yarmouk, led by the charismatic commander Bashar al-Zoubi; and Liwa Fallujah Hawran — and since late 2013 some of these factions have reportedly begun to receive more substantial training and weaponry from Western and Arab countries.
The Daraa governorate is a largely agricultural region of 1,400 square miles, home to slightly over 1 million people, most of whom belong to Arab Sunni tribes with connections in Jordan and cousins as far afield as Iraq and Saudi Arabia. While the land is predominately rural and sparsely populated, it is strategically important, as it borders two important U.S. allies in the region, Israel and Jordan. While the Syrian Baath Party historically courted the people of Daraa, the Assad regime neglected much of this region in recent years. The region’s fate is highly symbolic, because it was here that the peaceful uprising in Syria began in March 2011.
SF rebel forces have made significant gains in the governorate in recent months. Currently, the rebel coalition is trying to secure full control over the provincial capital of Daraa, and to seize strategic regime-held areas north and west of the city, toward the city of Quneitra and the western suburbs of Damascus.
Despite its loose alliance with the local franchises of rebel militant Salafi groups, SF leaders espouse an ideal of a future Syria that is secular, nationalist, and multiethnic. SF leaders promised in their Dec. 10, 2014, communiqué that “the protection of all Syrian citizens, their property and their rights without any distinction of religion, culture, ethnicity, or political affiliation in accordance with International Humanitarian Law and the international standards of Human Rights.”
The SF forces have also attempted to mediate among the fractious rebel groups within their ranks, ensuring cooperation and operational unity. They have also offered reassurances to the minority Christians in the province, particularly in the large town of Izra, and continue to conduct outreach through tribal sheikhs and rebel coordinating committee members to loyalist Druze communities in neighboring al-Sweida province.
Moreover, the SF coalition has had some measured success working with the local councils to administer civilian aid effectively. Currently, brigades within the coalition protect local civilian coordination committees, offering security to the civilians who are providing municipal services and distributing humanitarian aid across the region. In addition, where possible, its forces are protecting critical local infrastructure such as wheat silos, wells and water purification plants, schools, and electricity grids.
To be sure, Daraa is far more homogeneous than almost any other area of Syria. It would be difficult to replicate the SF’s example of inclusive civil-military governance in more ethnically diverse and complicated governorates in the north, such as Aleppo. But the coalition still represents the type of partner that the international community seeks in Syria — credible and militarily capable enough to hold contested territory, while willing to countenance a future Syria that is secular, nationalist, inclusive, and respects minority rights.
Of course, the Southern Front’s tactical cooperation with al-Nusra Front is far from ideal. The two groups have tactically allied in the south because of their shared goal — defeating the Assad regime. The SF militias and al-Nusra Front also participate jointly in overseeing local social welfare programs. In many cases across Daraa, members of SF groups and local fighters in al-Nusra Front come from the same tribe, clan, and even extended families. To avoid conflict between the rebel groups that can devolve into tribal and familial blood feuds, the SF and al-Nusra Front have largely avoided fighting one another.
For now, SF forces are in a stronger position than the al Qaeda affiliate. As a result, they have the leverage to set the terms for the military revolution in southern Syria, and also to propagate its more secular, nationalist platform. If the SF coalition continues to hold territory and provide basic governance, it may be able to fend off the challenge from a range of Islamist competitors, who are known for their effective governance elsewhere in Syria.
Despite its shortcomings, the Southern Front coalition does provide a glimmer of hope amid Syria’s increasingly dismal political landscape. The international community should recognize the demonstration effect offered by the SF model in Daraa and more strongly support its local, indigenous governance structure — including by increasing military and humanitarian assistance to the armed groups leading the coalition. The Southern Front should be the focus of training and material support from the United States and its allies, allowing it to repel potential IS advances in the region.
Alas, Bashar al-Assad is well aware that the relative endurance of rebel rule in Daraa challenges his narrative that the West must choose between his regime and the terrorists. In the coming months, it is likely that the regime will try to retake Daraa to prevent just this sort of a secular, nationalist alternative from emerging. Therefore, any international efforts to “freeze” the conflict in areas such as Aleppo should take into account that the regime may use any freed-up forces and assets in order to turn its firepower southward. Freezes in fighting in the north should not come at the expense of those in the south, where rebel rule is providing one of the few blueprints for how Syria could emerge from this crisis.
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