Under a cloud of cigarette smoke, Syrian rebels crowded in a Jordanian safe house debate methods to ease tensions with a minority community. “We should release the prisoners,” says Abu Hassan, a man advising them.
A fighter sitting next to him protests: “You have to call them ‘detainees’,” he says. “I just learnt that in my international humanitarian law class.”
Bemused rebels sprawled on the sofa lean forward to listen. “We’re a non-state actor,” explains the lanky commander. “So we can’t have prisoners of war — only detainees.” Laughter follows as Abu Hassan waves his hands. “Whatever they are, release them.”
Until recently, many of these fighters had never heard of humanitarian law courses. But the rebels of the Southern Front alliance are on a mission to cast themselves as the only non-Islamist alternative left to counter President Bashar al-Assad — an uphill struggle that has pushed them to pursue every available avenue to gain legitimacy in the eyes of western and Arab backers.
After more than four years of a civil war that has killed over 300,000 people, displaced nearly 10m and left both rebel and government forces accused of war crimes, it is a huge struggle for any group to claim credibility. It is even more complicated for the Southern Front, formed out of the remnants of the Free Syria Army in early 2014, because western powers are gripped by fear of the rapid expansion of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Isis) . They have lost interest in opposition forces mired in squabbling and factionalism.
An alliance of 54 rebel groups — from secularist to moderately religious fighters — the Southern Front is the only non-hardline Islamist rebel group in control of a substantial part of Syria: it holds swaths of territory along the south, from the border with neighbouring Jordan to the Golan Heights facing Israel, and even small pockets in the capital Damascus. Though it has not made the same inroads as other groups, it is consistently better at holding the territory it captures.
Yet western backers, led by the US, have recoiled from giving the kind of sophisticated weaponry and finance it wants to launch a full-scale assault on the Assad regime in Damascus. “The US is really afraid of what the fall of Damascus would mean,” says one western diplomat. “They’re worried no one but Isis would fill the gap.”
The Southern Front argues that withholding support from it makes a Damascus controlled by Isis or another Islamist faction all the more inevitable. Even as the alliance makes gradual advances in the south, another Islamist formation in the northwest is moving much faster. Known as Jaish al-Fatah — “Army of Conquest” — and only formed in March, it works with al-Qaeda militants on the ground and is amply supplied by Turkey, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.
With Mr Assad’s grip weakening, two visions of a Syrian opposition are emerging: one, a Gulf-backed, quick-moving formation that is fusing with al-Qaeda; the other, a slower moving force with halting western support. Which one triumphs will influence what the future for Syria will look like.
Analysts watching the rebels say that without more backing, the Southern Front’s 35,000-strong force cannot maintain its strength against the combined threats of Mr Assad, Isis and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra.
“It is within the backers’ capabilities to help [the Southern Front] establish dominance on the ground . . . This is as good as it gets in terms of a chance to empower mainstream opposition forces,” says Noah Bonsey, an analyst at the International Crisis Group. “There is no reason to believe the positive elements we see now will remain that way.”
Desperate for practical support, the Southern Front has tried to reinvent itself as an enlightened movement: stressing its efforts to work with humanitarian groups, local civilian councils and minorities. It took a gamble by publicly distancing itself from Jabhat al-Nusra, a move that threatened to sour relations with some rebels who wanted to maintain ties to the group.
“They are running a gambit to prove their democratic and western values, which could be risky,” the diplomat says. “But they don’t see an ultimate victory possible without western backing.”
Against this backdrop they are under intense pressure in their own backyard. Islamists, emboldened by successes in the north, are escalating their challenge for control of the south, with two alliances — including Jaish al-Fatah — announcing branches in the region.
“We are still struggling to gain the international community’s trust,” says Southern Front spokesman Issam al-Reis. “We were expecting more support but nothing has changed . . . This is the last hope for [us] because lots of groups are trying to erase us.”
From the start, the group’s leadership has had a direct link to the so-called Military Operations Command based in Jordan. Rebels say the facility helps to co-ordinate some operations and is manned by the US, European states and regional powers such as Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The MOC sends weapons and distributes monthly salaries — about $50 per fighter — to several Southern Front groups.
Both rebels and observers say the support looks like an attempt by western powers to keep the alliance onside: not enough to allow them to push on to Damascus, but just enough for the west to maintain an influence over events.
The frustration is growing. On a recent visit to Washington, rebels say a Southern Front representative met officials expecting new pledges of support after the group had blocked an offensive led by Iranian forces and the Lebanese militia Hizbollah — Mr Assad’s regional backers. Instead, western officials expressed concerns that Jabhat al-Nusra forces were also seen at the Jordanian border, highlighting possible overlap between the rebel groups, and indicated that their main focus was not the removal of Mr Assad, but how to stop the advance of Isis.
Countries such as Jordan might be willing to offer more forceful support to the Southern Front, but will only act on Washington’s lead. “The US has to make up its mind: what do they want to do?” asks Major General Mahmoud Irdaisat, a retired Jordanian general. “Our allies still have no strategy.”
Some western diplomats and analysts argue that without clear support for groups such as the Southern Front, the Assad regime and its backers in Iran will believe they can outlast the rebels’ advances.
Since the Washington meeting, the Southern Front has streamlined its hierarchy, bringing its various parts under the control of a joint leadership council. “If the Southern Front stays united, they can be the strongest force here,” says Thaer al-Abdullah, an activist from Deraa — a town in the southwest that saw some of the worst regime violence when the uprising began in 2011. “If they can’t, they are nothing.”
Many in the new command structure have had experience of earlier, failed, rebel formations. Some, such as commander Abu Osama al-Jolani, are clear minded about the futility of working with radical forces, having been pushed out of northern Syria when Islamist groups rose to power in late 2012.
“I don’t want Syria to be a new Afghanistan,” he says. “The final word must be for the Southern Front.”
The key to maintaining the unity of the alliance, he says, will be the efforts to twin the group’s military activities with political outreach work.
They have found an unusual ally in Maan Abdul Salam, a long-time human rights activist from Damascus. He declined to be interviewed, but Southern Front commanders say he shook up their thinking by encouraging relationships with local civilian and humanitarian groups, in a bid to gain more local and international credibility.
“He helped us understand why things weren’t improving,” says commander Abu Hamza al-Qabouni. “He told us we had to support civil society groups instead of bullying them — honestly, we weren’t so good with that before.”
Observers and local activists say relations are gradually improving on the ground — at least with civilians from the Sunni Muslim majority — even though Mr Qabouni complains that the efforts have not been rewarded by the group’s western backers.
A bigger challenge is gaining the trust of minorities after the horrors of Isis and al-Nusra attacks on Christian and Druze communities that have left them wary of all rebel groups. That is where Abu Hassan, the man who argued for a hostage release, comes in.
The silver haired Druze activist helps the Southern Front organise goodwill measures: fighters were sent to protect a belt of agricultural area Druze farmers had abandoned because of clashes and he had all detainees from Druze villages released to end a vicious cycle of hostage taking“The FSA [Southern Front] must prove it can protect the Druze from Isis.”
Not everyone is enamoured of this new strategy though.
Mohammed al-Dhihni is a member of the Southern Front’s March 18 Brigade in Deraa. Sidelined by the front’s new joint command, he grumbles not only about the new leaders, but the growing talk of disengagement with groups such as Jabhat al-Nusra, whose fighters he says are fellow countrymen.
“I want to be close to my people, and many of our brothers are al-Nusra,” Mr Dhihni says. “If I am close to Islamists, so what? Isn’t it better to keep people who can communicate with them?”
Opposition to the opposition
He is wary of the intensified efforts to court the west, accusing those who led the push to restructure as “Karzais and Chalabis of Syria”, a reference to the Afghani and Iraqi figures — Hamid Karzai and Ahmed Chalabi — who gained power after aiding the US invasions of their countries. “The US is trying to get us to create a cowboy force, exposing us and risking creating more chaos. Where are some of these guys [rebels who worked with Islamist groups] going to go? To extremists.”
But the risk may be worth it, most Southern Front members say, if they can twin their grassroots military force with political leadership on the ground.
The move could see them challenge the dominance of the Syrian National Coalition. Known by its Arabic name Etilaf, the organisation created in 2012 has widespread international recognition as the representative of the Syrian opposition, despite the fact it failed to develop ties beyond its Turkish headquarters with rebels or civilians in Syria.
Last week, Etilaf leader Khaled Khoja visited Amman, rebels say, to convince the Southern Front to join forces with Jaish al-Fatah — a move that could get his organisation back on top at the cost of an Islamist dominated leadership.
The commanders refused. Many, like Abu Hamza, still hope the west will come through. “You have to put pressure on something to see what’s on the inside,” he says. “Then they’ll see what we really are.”
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