Jaysh al-Fateh fails to advance in Deraa

Friday 10/07/2015
Fighters from Jaysh al-Fateh coalition

DAMASCUS - The Islamist Jaysh al- Fateh, a coalition of Syr­ian rebel groups, includ­ing al-Qaeda’s affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra, was hop­ing to emulate in Deraa a recent victory it had against government forces in the northern province of Idlib. But the three-day “Southern Storm” offensive it waged in June to seize government positions in the southern province, including the al-Tha’la military airbase on the outskirts of the Druze heartland of Sweida, turned out to be a total flop.

Poor military coordination be­tween various rebel groups, geog­raphy and geopolitical conditions were blamed for the failure in De­raa.

“The circumstances and the en­vironment of military operations in Deraa were totally different from Idlib,” a rebel fighter and former Syrian Army officer said on condi­tion of anonymity.

“A main difference is geography, which is more to the rebels’ advan­tage,” he said, in reference to the mountainous area of Idlib, covered with thick forests that help hide the movement of men and equipment facing the government’s air power.

In Idlib, rebels used various types of weaponry, including heavy arms, to crush government posi­tions, the ex-officer said. “Whereas in Deraa, the choice of arms was limited because of the proximity of civilian centres to the battleground, a matter that, however, did not stop the regime from using barrel bombs and rockets.”

Poor coordination in the field between fighting units was another weakness of Jaysh al-Fateh in De­raa, he added.

A military source in Damascus, pinned the rebels’ victory in Idlib to the open military supply lines from Turkey. “Weapons, fighters and vehicles as well as suicide bomb­ers from Jabhat al-Nusra who had a key role in assuring the victory of the rebels, streamed from Turkey, while no such thing was possible in Deraa,” the source said.

Deraa leans mostly towards more moderate rebel factions, who receive training in Jordan. Weapons and ammunition also find their way across the Jordanian border to non- Islamist rebel areas.

Generally, Deraa’s predomi­nantly tribal inhabitants are closely influenced by Jordan, which is anti- Islamist and in the forefront of re­gional efforts to fight al-Qaeda and other militants in Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

Jaysh al-Fateh — the Army of Conquest — was formed in March as an umbrella organisation for some 50 Islamist rebel groups, excluding the Islamic State (ISIS) seeking to topple the Syrian regime. The alli­ance is said to control 35,000 fight­ers and includes, in addition to Jab­hat al-Nusra, smaller groups such as Ahrar al-Sham, Liwa al-Haqq, Fateh al-Sham, Mujahideen Nawa, Jaysh al-Sunna and Faylaq al-Sham.

Syrian military strategist Has­san Hassan questioned the abil­ity of armed opposition groups to unite and work effectively under one banner. “All attempts in that di­rection have failed so far, except in the case of Idlib, a victory that was largely due to unlimited Turkish military support,” Hassan said.

“It is almost impossible to unify these groups because of deep divi­sions and differences in their objec­tives, approaches and among coun­tries supporting them.”

Jaysh al-Fateh suffered painful losses — several hundred fighters killed or wounded — in the South­ern Storm battle. Many fighters fled from advancing government troops in the town of Naima, some 4 kilo­metres east of Deraa, Hassan added.

Weaknesses of the “Deraa chap­ter” of Jaysh al-Fateh were ac­knowledged by the rebels, citing in­ner divisions and mistrust as major handicaps. “Differences and lack of trust between the various groups caused many to fail to abide by the joint plan of attack,” a rebel field commander, who asked to be iden­tified as Yassin, said.

Pointing an accusing finger at Jabhat al-Nusra, Yassin said: “They were acting individually and not as part of the group which eventually undermined their efficiency.”

Rifts within the group deep­ened after an air bombing targeted a meeting of Southern Storm com­manders at the main operations room on the second day of the offensive.

Rebels exchanged ac­cusations of treason and leaking information about the meeting to government forces.

Yassin argued that the Syrian Army took advantage of the divi­sions among the rebel groups to launch intensive attacks in various parts of Deraa, which resulted in defeating the rebels in Talat Sheikh Hussein, south-west of the Tha’la airbase. “This (defeat) should be a lesson learned to all groups in or­der to avoid similar mistakes in a new battle for achieving the aspired objective of seizing control of all of Deraa,” he added.

Renewed attempts to put in place a new operations room for Jaysh al-Fatah in Deraa proved fu­tile. “The differences between the groups are too deep to be mended,” Yassin said.

The army says it is targeting rebel positions in Syria’s southern prov­ince on a daily basis, whereas the latter are trying to close their ranks and get reorganised with the hope of emulating the victory in Idlib.