Saturday, 30 June 2018

Are al-Qaeda Affiliates Fighting Alongside U.S. Rebels in Syria’s South?


DARAA, Syria – At first glance, all appears calm in this southern Syrian city where protests first broke out seven years ago. Residents mill around shops in preparation for the evening Iftar meal when they break their daily fast during the holy month of Ramadan.

But the tension is nonetheless palpable in this now government-controlled city. A few weeks ago, Russian-brokered reconciliation talks in southern Syria fell apart when Western-backed militants rejected a negotiated peace.

Whether there will now be a full-on battle for the south or not, visits last week to Syria’s three southern governorates, Daraa, Quneitra, and Suweida, reveal a startling possibility: al-Qaeda’s Syrian franchise—the Nusra Front—appears to be deeply entrenched alongside these U.S.-backed militants in key, strategic towns and villages scattered throughout the south.

U.S. media and think tanks obfuscate this fact by referring to all opposition fighters as “rebels” or “moderates.” Take a look at their maps and you only see three colors: red for the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its allies, green for opposition forces, black for ISIS.

So then, where is the Nusra Front, long considered by Western pundits to be one of the most potent fighting forces against the SAA? Have they simply—and conveniently—been erased from the Syrian battle map?

Discussions with Syrian military experts, analysts, and opposition fighters during my trip revealed that Nusra is alive and kicking in the southern battlefields. The map below specifically identifies areas in the south controlled by Nusra, but there are many more locations that do not appear where Nusra is present and shares power with other militants.

Despite its U.S. and UN designation as a terrorist organization, Nusra has been openly fighting alongside the “Southern Front,” a group of 54 opposition militias funded and commanded by a U.S.-led war room based in Amman, Jordan called the Military Operations Center (MOC).

Specifics about the MOC aren’t easy to come by, but sources inside Syria—both opposition fighters and Syrian military brass (past and present)—suggest the command center consists of the U.S., UK, France, Jordan, Israel, and some Persian Gulf states.

They say the MOC supplies funds, weapons, salaries, intel, and training to the 54 militias, many of which consist of a mere 200 or so fighters that are further broken down into smaller groups, some only a few dozen strong.

SAA General Ahmad al-Issa, a commander for the frontline in Daraa, says the MOC is a U.S.-led operation that controls the movements of Southern Front “terrorists” and is highly influenced by Israel’s strategic goals in the south of Syria—one of which is to seize control of its bordering areas to create a “buffer” inside Syrian territories.

How does he know this? Issa says his information comes from a cross-section of sources, including reconciled/captured militants and intel from the MOC itself. The general cites MOC’s own rulebook for militants as an example of its Israel-centricity: “One, never threaten or approach any Israeli border in any way. Two, protect the borders with (Israeli-occupied) Golan so no one can enter Israel.”

To illustrate the MOC’s control over southern militants, Issa cites further regulations: “three, never take any military action before clearing with MOC first. Four, if the MOC asks groups to attack or stop, they must do so.”

What happens if these rules are not upheld? “They will get their salaries cut,” says Issa.
The armed opposition groups supported by the MOC are mostly affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), itself an ill-defined, highly fungible group of militants who have changed names and affiliations with frequency during the Syrian conflict.

Over the course of the war, the FSA has fought alongside the Nusra Front and ISIS—some have even joined them. Today, despite efforts to whitewash the FSA and Southern Front as “non-sectarian” and non-extremist, factions like the Yarmouk Army, Mu’tazz Billah Brigade, Salah al-Din Division, Fajr al-Islam Brigade, Fallujah al-Houran Brigade, the Bunyan al-Marsous grouping, Saifollah al-Masloul Brigade, and others are currently occupying keys areas in Daraa in cooperation with the Nusra Front.
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/are-al-qaeda-affiliates-fighting-alongside-u-s-rebels-in-syrias-south/

Related:

US, UK Financing 54 Militia Groups in Syria Despite Trump Vow to ‘Get Out’

Syrian War Report – June 29, 2018: Tiger Forces Liberate Multiple Settlements In Southern Syria


[Posted at the SpookyWeather blog, June 30th, 2018.]

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