Further violence predicted in Syria's south as regime withdraws

Further violence predicted in Syria's south as regime withdraws
Increased pressure on regime forces in the south may set the stage for a clash between the Islamic State group and the Free Syrian Army or the Druze.
4 min read
15 January, 2015
The FSA is reportedly close to a breakthrough in the south [AFP]

Forces affiliated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) have made considerable progress south of Damascus in recent months, which sources close to the FSA attribute to improved coordination among FSA brigades and a central war room in Jordan that controls supply routes.

The regime has lost control of most areas of Daraa, though it continues to hold key cities, considered its last strongholds in the governorate. Losing these territories, between Izrei and al-Sanamayn, would mean losing the entire governorate.

FSA sources say the Syrian regime is pulling its heavy weapons - artillery and tanks - from its positions in the Daraa area.

FSA sources in the area say the Syrian regime is pulling its heavy weapons - artillery and tanks - from its positions there, especially the artillery regiment and the 12th and 82nd brigades in Izrei, and drawing down its forces in the Khalkhala airbase, leaving its forces there without basic military protection.

The regime has also withdrawn its heavy artillery from the Suweida region. This means the eastern part of the Daraa governorate could become almost free of Syrian regime forces within days.

The power vacuum that may exist in the aftermath of a regime withdrawal in Daraa could pave the way for the Islamic State group (IS, formerly known as Isis), to make advances or even launch an assault on the cities of Daraa or Suweida.

Analysts say FSA troops lack the support in Daraa to fill the void left by the regime.

It is feared this could lead a number of armed factions now operating under the aegis of the FSA to split from the umbrella group and declare allegiance to IS, especially those that are not on good terms with the FSA leadership.

The IS operations in al-Hajar al-Aswad, near Damascus, show the group is able to absorb a large number of fighters.

According to activists on the ground in that area, the IS group pays each fighter around $250 per month, in addition to providing heating oil in the winter and supplying them with food. The IS reportedly obtains these supplies by purchasing them from armed Palestinian factions allied to the Syrian regime - or directly from regime forces.

The IS was reportedly able to win over up to 700 fighters in al-Hajar al-Aswad thanks to this approach.

But why withdraw?

The Syrian army forces in the region have been dealt successive and serious blows by the FSA, and are being worn down on an almost daily basis.

The Syrian army-controlled areas are contiguous with IS-controlled areas in the region, though no major battle has yet taken place between those two groups. Currently, the Syrian army acts as a buffer between IS and FSA forces, and its withdrawal could precipitate a direct confrontation between the two.

Both FSA sources and Druze sources say regime forces are in a very poor position in Suweida. The regime tried to conscript more than 11,000 young men in Suweida, of which only 80 were rounded up after they were stopped at security checkpoints.

The regime tried to conscript more than 11,000 men in Suweida, but only 80 were rounded up after they were stopped at security checkpoints.

The regime has tried to convince the Druze to join the pro-regime Popular Committees, ostensibly to protect their areas. However, Druze elders are convinced this is a ruse, and the Druze youths would be transferred to other regions.

Druze sources said the death of around 30 Druze youths, in a battle that the regime dragged the Druze into in Mount Hermon, led the elders to believe the regime could not be trusted.

Over time, there has been an increasingly sharp reaction to the arrest of youths wanted for evading conscription in the Suweida region. Locals in a number of Druze towns and villages have started to attack security buildings to free their relatives.

Meanwhile, the IS group, which holds territory in the Bir Qassab region, north of Suweida, recently destroyed a Druze religious shrine there. Druze sources say the shrine had been abandoned as it was too remote from populated areas to defend.

The Syrian army's reported plans to withdraw its forces from these areas, from the Khalkhala airbase and the 12th brigade in Izrei, could signal it is paving the way for one of two scenarios: a confrontation between the IS and the FSA, in which the scales are tipped in favour of the former given the weak support for the FSA from Jordan; or a confrontation between the Druze and IS, which would greatly benefit the regime's propaganda efforts.

This is an edited translation from our Arabic edition.