The Southern Front of the Free Syrian Army believe they play a crucial role in the push toward an agreement to end Syria’s civil war. A coalition of over 35,000 in southern Syria, the Southern Front believes they are the only force that can apply enough military pressure around Damascus to get the Assad regime to agree to a political solution. Major Issam Al Reis, the FSA spokesman for the Southern Front and a defected officer who previously spent 20 years in the Syrian Arab Army, discussed the Southern Front’s hopes and needs in this war moving forward.
Founded in February 2014 when over 50 moderate groups in southern Syria came together under one banner, the Southern Front believes in a political solution, but says the regime will not make any agreement without feeling the pressure to do so militarily. “We have more opportunity than others, because we are closer to the regime, we are near the capital. We are near the headquarters of the regime, so we have more opportunity to put more pressure on the regime,” Al Reis stated.
The UN Special Representative to Syria, Stefan De Mistura, began a consultation process last week in Geneva with parties involved in the Syrian conflict to reenergize an initiative toward finding a political solution to this crisis. One of the groups De Mistura invited was the Southern Front.
The FSA was reluctant to take part in last year’s Geneva II talks alongside the political opposition because they believed the timing wasn’t right — opposition forces didn’t command enough strength on the ground for that to translate into concessions at the negotiating table. The peace talks failed, and over a year has passed with no serious political initiatives. Now that they are in a stronger position, the FSA contends they are now ready to take part in these initial discussions proposed by De Mistura.
The military situation on the ground has changed significantly since Geneva II, with the regime now appearing increasingly weak across Syria. The Southern Front has achieved a series of important strategic victories. Most recently, they seized the border crossing of Nassib between Syria and Jordan last month, and liberated the ancient city of Bosra Al Sham. In March, FSA liberated Idlib in the north, fortifying the rebels’ footing. The regime is also increasingly reliant on foreign militia, further proving its weakness on the ground.
“The regime’s army is just in pieces now. It is finished. We just face Hezbollah and other Shi’a militia on the ground now. With more support we could finish this,” said Major Abu Osama Al Jolani, a senior member of the Southern Front’s Joint Command and a defected officer.
The FSA is disappointed with the insufficient support they have received and believes they need more to exert pressure on Damascus that will yield a political solution. “There is a huge gap in terms of the demand and the supply, even our ammunition is not enough”, said Al Reis. Crucially, the regime’s advantage lies in its control of the airspace, as it continues its daily barrage of barrel bombs. The regime has also persisted with its use of chlorine gas, targeted particularly at areas recently liberated by the rebels. “Assad is using the chlorine gas weekly against Syrians, and the international community is doing nothing to stop him,” said Al Reis.
The political opposition in exile, the National Coalition, continues to request increased support, stressing this need in a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this month. Moderates have been losing ground to better supported Islamist brigades who pay higher salaries: “The Southern Front really is the last hope for the Free Syrian Army,” Al Reis noted. “Fighters need to defend their families. If they are not able to do this on the support they are receiving they will go to those who will pay, which sadly is the Islamists.”
A “circle of hell” persists on the ground. The regime’s barrel bombs attacks and continued use of chlorine gas have left millions of Syrians displaced and over 250,000 dead. If any political initiative is to translate into a solution, credible moderate opposition forces like the Southern Front need more financial and military support. Without it, the stalemate and bloodshed will continue and political initiatives will be a waste of time and effort for all parties involved (as was the case during Geneva II).
“The Southern Front is not only the solution to the south, but it is the key to unlock the solution to all of Syria,” said Al Jolani. Despite the lack of support, the FSA and Southern Front remain hopeful: “There are more victories coming, [but] to finish this, we need more support,” Al Jolani concluded.