Jaysh al-Fateh fails to advance in Deraa
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.