South Syria Opposition Groups Keep Islamists at Bay

Relatively moderate Free Syrian Army opposition fighters consolidate their position in the south.

An Iraqi platoon leader looks down the line of his fellow soldiers as they prepare to fire at paper targets at an M16 zero range at Al Asad, January 5, 2011
An Iraqi platoon leader looks down the line of his fellow soldiers as they prepare to fire at paper targets at an M16 zero range at Al Asad, January 5, 2011 (US Army/Staff Sergeant Christopher Jelle)

Opponents of Western military intervention in Syria’s civil war can point to the presence of radical Islamists among the opposition in the country. Especially in the north and east, areas that are home to Syria’s majority Sunni population, jihadists, some of them linked to the international terrorist organization Al Qaeda, seem effectively in control. Why back them they could turn on the West?

In the south, close to the Jordanian border, it’s apparently a different story. Michael Weiss and Elizabeth O’Bagy report for RealClearWorld and The Wall Street Journal, respectively, that Free Syrian Army rebels there, armed by neighboring Arab powers and some of them trained in Jordan by Western soldiers, are able to keep the Islamists at bay. “While traveling with some of these Free Syrian Army battalions, I’ve watched them defend Alawi and Christian villages from government forces and extremist groups,” writes O’Bagy. “And they have struggled to ensure that their fight against Assad will pave the way for a flourishing civil society.”

“Contrary to many media accounts,” she believes “the war in Syria is not being waged entirely, or even predominantly, by dangerous Islamists and Al Qaeda diehards.” Foreigners pouring into Syria to join what they consider a religious war are not flocking to the frontlines. “Instead they are concentrating their efforts on consolidating control in the northern, rebel held areas of the country.” These groups care less about defeating the regime of President Bashar Assad than establishing an Islamic emirate in part of Syria.

Thanks to geographic separation from extremist strongholds and reliable support networks in the south, even outdated arms sent by the Saudis, like Croatian rocket launchers and recoilless rifles, have allowed moderate rebel groups to make significant inroads into areas that had previously been easily defended by the regime and to withstand the pressure of government forces in the capital.

The fact that they can get weapons from other Sunni powers in the Middle East — which have both a sectarian and a strategic imperative in supporting the uprising when Assad is the only Arab ally of their nemesis Iran — makes the Islamist groups less attractive. One rebel leader told Weiss, “The only reason folks starting fighting with Jabhat al-Nusra,” which has been declared a terrorist organization by the United States, “was the lack of any real support to the FSA, weapons and ammunition being delivered to us.”

Cultural differences between the north and south also contributed to the Free Syrian Army’s ability to carve out more territory in the latter, Weiss believes. Illiteracy rates in the largely rural north are high while in the cities and towns of the south, which is also home to Syria’s minority Druze, the population is more educated and tolerant.

Army training by Westerners in Jordan helped. Some 1,000 Syrian rebels are believed to have been given courses in tactics and weaponry. One opposition activist told Weiss that a relative who had undergone training was shown how to properly fire his weapon, outfit his rifle with optical scopes, even how to sit or take breaths when firing. “My [relative] hit his targets maybe 10 percent of the time before receiving training in Jordan. Now his hit rate is more like 50 percent.”

Even if they are cautiously optimistic about the southern rebels’ prospects, O’Bagy and Weiss admit that Free Syrian Army and Islamist groups still battle for control of the uprising. The latter are further divided and contest supremacy among themselves. Whether more training and weapons for “moderate” groups will stave off an Islamist insurgency in Syria is therefore impossible to predict. But, writes Weiss, the situation in the south “should give the West hope.”