Syria: What is happening on its Southern Border?
Since the beginning, news reports have focused more on the Syrian war in the north and the battles around Homs, Hama, and Aleppo. However, there has been a second front, along Syria’s southern border that has become just as important, especially given the recent setbacks to the military and political campaign of the Syrian Rebels.
“For the past two months the Syrian army has suffered some serious setbacks in the southern sector, at least in the short term,” Ehud Yaari told the BBC. “I have always believed that the key to the conflict would be in the southern sector and it’s beginning to tilt that way. The way the Syrian army and its allies like Hezbollah are deployed means that there is an opening in the south.” Yaari is a fellow for the Washington Institute and a commentator on Israeli television.
Although it has received less media coverage, the southern front, which runs along the Jordanian/Syrian/Israeli border, is probably the most important at this point of time. First, it is a major pipeline for material assistance from the GCC nations like Saudi Arabia. Second, it is the base for training camps run by American, British, and French Special Forces. Third, the front hasn’t become an extension of Jordan’s foreign policy in the same way the northern front has become an attempt by Turkey to extend its control. Finally, the southern front is where Israel is aiding the rebels in hope of keeping the occupied Golan Heights under control.
All of this has come into focus as Syrian rebels have launched an offensive in the Golan Heights. The immediate goal of the rebels seems to be the crossing point between the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights and Syrian-controlled territory at Quneitra, and the roads leading to the town itself. They are making significant headway against the two Syrian army brigades – the 61st and the 91st – that once guarded the Israeli/Syrian border. The rebel attacks have been so strong that both brigades are now considered nearly inoperative.
In most reported accounts, despite heavy artillery support, the 61st brigade was outmaneuvered by the rebels at the Tel al-Jabia military base near Nawa. The 91st brigade lost control over much of the border area with Israel, including the high ground of Tel al-Ahmar (the Red Hills) and Tel Kudna. Units of the Syrian 3rd Division still hold the northern part of Derra, while rebels hold the rest of this border town.
The Jordanian Connection
The reason for the relatively successful push against the Syrian army in the south has been the slow build up of trained Syrian rebels and arms in Jordan. Here, Western nations and several GCC countries are training and arming the Free Syrian Army (FSA).
The training appears to be from Special Forces of France, Britain, and the US. There have also been reports of American private security contractors in the training camps too.
The lessons have focused on small and medium arms, as well as mortars, rocket propelled grenades (RPGs), man portable anti-tank weapons, and anti-aircraft cannon. There has been no training on sophisticated anti-aircraft missiles like the Stinger because the West is afraid that they will end up in the hands of” non friendly or moderate” terrorists.
Training has focused on Russian supplied arms like the AK-47, AK-74, RPG-7, the Russian-designed 14.5-millimeter antitank rifles, Concourse antitank missiles, 82-millimeter recoil-less rifles, and 23-millimeter antiaircraft weapons. The reason for training on Russian arms is that these are the type most likely to be captured from Syrians military arsenals. They are also the type supplied by the American CIA, which according to reports has transferred many captured Russian arms from Libya to Syria, via Turkey and Jordan. The course of training for the rebels is about two weeks long and usually designed to train about 40 rebels at a time.
Although there has been a reticence to giving the rebels portable surface to air missiles, it appears that they have been given some Russian systems. The Strela-2 (NATO designation, SA-7 Grail) is a man-portable, shoulder-fired, low-altitude surface-to-air missile system with a high explosive warhead and passive infrared homing guidance. It was the first generation of Soviet man-portable SAMs, entering service in 1968, with series production starting in 1970. It has been used by the Syrian Army in Lebanon and there are reports that the CIA acquired stocks of them from Libya.
There has been considerable reticence to provide the rebels with American made arms. There are several reasons for this. The CIA has for decades stocked a supply of foreign made (frequently Russian) weapons that can be supplied to pro-American guerillas. This has allowed the CIA to hide its involvement in a civil war and gives the American government plausible deniability. These were the type of arms given originally to the Afghan rebels in the late 1970s.
These arms have come from several sources like Libya and even former Warsaw Pact countries.
Russian made arms are also easier to support in Syria as the ammunition for them is available from captured soldiers and arsenals.
Finally, the US is not eager to pass its technology to groups that may pass them on to terrorist organizations.
That, position, may have finally changed. Recently, there have been a few American BGM TOW-71 anti-tank missiles provided to the FSA. It is produced by Raytheon in Tucson, Arizona, but these are probably drawn from Saudi military stocks and passed to the rebels with American approval. The Israel Defense Forces used TOW missiles during the 1982 Lebanon War. On 11 July Israeli anti-tank teams armed with the TOW ambushed Syrian armored forces and destroyed 11 Syrian tanks. They were also used effectively in Operation Desert Storm against Iraqi tanks.
The TOW missiles that have been seen in the hands of Syrian rebels are being used by Harakat Hazam, a Free Syrian Army group that is mostly composed of survivors from the now-defunct Kataeb Farouq FSA group. They are less militant than the Islamic Front, and General Idris has been the most active solicitor of American aid for the FSA. This indicates that the Obama Administration is being careful in who receives these weapons. These weapons have been used in battle and have been responsible for destroying Syrian tanks and preventing the Syrian Army from counterattacking in the south.
Interestingly, Harakat Hazam also been seen with some shoulder fired surface to air missiles recently (frequently called man portable air defense systems – MANPADS). According to Fox News, some of the TOWs provided to rebels since March are equipped with a complex, fingerprint-keyed security device that controls who can fire it. It’s likely that any American MANPADS like the Stinger will be similarly equipped.
The appearance of these weapons in the Syrian theater indicates that the US has decided to increase pressure on the Assad regime.
Rather than allowing the newly trained forces reenter the war in small groups, they have been dispatched back into Syria in larger battalion or brigade strengths. This indicates that rather than allowing the rebels to continue operating as small guerilla forces that merely harasses the Syrian Army, the focus is on larger, more conventional units that can engage similar Syrian forces and win. Some observers think the rebel strength in the south is around 20,000 men.
This focus on larger, more conventional forces is clearly seen in recent operations in southern Syria, where the FSA has pushed back the Syrian Army’s 61st and 91st brigades despite their superior artillery firepower. However, they do not have the strength to force the Syrian Army out of the town of Quenitra.
Clearly, the Syrian Arab military forces are stretched and he doesn’t have regular, reliable army forces to reinforce the southern front – leaving the regime to rely upon loyalist militias. At this time, President Assad must rely upon the 9th Division to hold the door to Damascus closed. The 9th Division is stationed in al-Kiswah, Qatana, and Kanaker on the Damascus outskirts
The Israeli Factor
But Quenitra isn’t just a town on the road to Damascus. It is just a mile from the Israeli/Syrian cease fire line and rebel control of the border would mean that the Syrian Army would not be facing the IDF – a fact that the Israelis would like. And, if the rebels are backed by Israel, they can carry out an offensive against Assad and Damascus without worrying about a hostile force in their rear.
Although not as visible, the Israelis have been an active partner in the internal Syrian war. Ehud Yaari, has said, “It would not be wrong to assume some kind of contact between the Israel Defense Forces and certain rebel groups.”
Yaari also writes, “These groups are making sure — among other things — not to provoke the Israelis across the border, although rebel-regime fighting often does occur within meters of the 1974 separation line agreed upon between” Israel” and Syria. It seems Presiden Assad does not have sufficient forces to protect the southern sector, which is proving to be the regime’s soft underbelly, and he cannot raise the reinforcements necessary to block the coming offensive already promised by the rebel command. Assad is also aware of the rebels’ strict avoidance of any clashes with Israel. Indeed, the rebels view Israel as “having their back” on the Golan Heights, so that many reliable sources are pointing already to the IDF of “facilitating” the rebels’ moves during their Quneitra offensive, explained by Israel’s declaration of the Golan border area as a “closed military zone.” The area is restricted for civilian movement, and both security and intelligence operations have been intensified.”
Some 1600 wounded Syrians, many of them rebels have been tended by Israeli hospitals. There has also been some “humanitarian” assistance given to villages across the frontier.
Although the official Israeli position is that they will not interfere unless there is some violence leaking across the border, Israel does benefit if President Assad falls. Assad regime is seen in Israel as a key link between Iran and Hezbollah in Lebanon. If Assad falls, Hezbollah loses its strategic position of strength in Lebanon.
Recently, the Abu Dhabi-based newspaper The National reported that Israeli agents giving large sums of cash to Syrian rebel factions. The newspaper cited a source from one of the rebel factions in southern Syria who claims that at least three opposition groups fighting Assad have received numerous payments totaling hundreds of thousands of dollars from Israeli agents who sought information about the identities of all Islamist militants who have established bases near the Syrian-Israeli border.
But, Israeli cooperation with the rebel movement goes further than” humanitarian assistance” and money for information on Islamic radicals. According to reports, it is secretly working with Jordan, which also is worried about al-Qaida-linked groups targeting its own government. Jordan could also be assisted with Israeli intelligence and technological assistance.
The Future of Syria
Given the facts on the ground – Rebel advances in the south and the appearance of supplying technologically advanced American weapons; it appears that America has finally decided to move more aggressively on Syria. In fact, General Bashir of the FSA’s Supreme Military Council said the United States has been heavily involved in the recent increase of advanced arms to parts of the Free Syrian Army. He argued that the FSA’s handling of the TOW anti-tank missiles should give the American government enough confidence to start providing anti-aircraft weapons, as well.
This turnaround was also signaled this week in Washington as Syrian rebels were greeted by a somewhat apologetic Secretary of State Kerry. In a private meeting with Syrian opposition leaders, Secretary of State John Kerry said he believed the international community “wasted a year” by not working together to help topple Assad. Kerry told Syrian Opposition Coalition president Ahmad Jarba that the various countries trying to help the Free Syrian Army had failed to coordinate their efforts effectively for a long time. And, that lack of coordination had dramatically set back the drive to stop Assad and counter the growing terrorism threat in Syria.
Jarba also met with Obama and Rice during the Washington visit. Although the meeting was described and, “encouraging and productive,” little of substance appeared to come out of it.
It has been reported that Kerry has been frustrated with the Obama administration’s Syria policy for a long time and has been quietly advocating a more robust aid to the rebels, only to be stopped repeatedly by the White House. The collapse of the Syrian talks in Geneva only made the case for support of the Syrian rebels that much clearer.
The visit was to push for more aid for the rebels, especially MANPADS. General Bashir noted, “The FSA has been dealing very well with the TOW missiles. Under our protection, people are trained to use them, and it is with the collaboration and under the supervision of the United States…The main purpose for our visit is to get anti-aircraft weapons to protect innocent civilians inside Syria, and we are hoping the United States is going to help us push aside Assad’s air force.”
Although the supply of American arms has increased, much depends on how the weapons are used effectively. There remain strong voices in the White House that would want to stop the arms flow if the Syrian rebels either fails to advance or are discovered selling the arms to unfriendly elements. The next few months in the south of Syria may very well determine the course of Syria’s internal war and the future of the country.
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