Two long years ago, on March 18th, Syrians rose up in Deraa, a dusty town on the agricultural plain of Hauran that spreads south into Jordan. The revolt marked the start of what became the Syrian civil war. The regime of Bashar Assad cracked down hard on Deraa. But now the area around it, near the border with Jordan, is coming back into its own.
It has always had a high concentration of military bases, since Syria is officially still at war with Israel. If the rebels were able to cross the border freely, they would gain a vital supply line. It is only an hour’s drive north to Damascus, the capital city and heart of Mr Assad’s regime.
This is why it has clung so tightly to the south while relinquishing its hold in the north and east. But in recent weeks opposition groups near the Jordan border have gone on the offensive, attacking tanks and checkpoints. On February 14th they overran the Sahwa air-defence base, grabbing five tanks and a stack of artillery. Though the regime still dominates the area, rebels now control several villages east of Deraa. They also hold a small section of the city and have carried out raids close to the Golan Heights. Earlier this month one group took 21 UN peacekeepers hostage. “Both the regime and we know the battle for Damascus will come from here,” says Bashar Zoubie, a commander who is a member of the rebels’ Supreme Military Council.
They say the fighting in the south is becoming more intense because of the acquisition of captured weapons and an increase of military defections from the regime. But outside backing, though still limited, is helping, too. Jordan and Israel, wary of turmoil spreading into their countries, have sought to prevent their borders from becoming conduits for weapons and fighters, as has happened with Turkey, Lebanon and Iraq. But it is being whispered that late last year Saudi Arabia, one of the Gulf states that backs the rebels, moved its operations from Turkey to Jordan, annoyed with Qatar’s and Turkey’s enthusiasm for Muslim Brotherhood-minded groups. Since then, say the rebels, Jordan has covertly let through the occasional limited but well-directed shipment of weapons, including anti-tank missiles. There are reports of training on Jordanian soil. Jordanian officials deny any such involvement.
By funnelling aid—including $60m from America and clothes, phones and food from Britain—directly through the Supreme Military Council, which liaises with local military councils, the rebels’ backers hope to keep their favoured groups under control. Deraa’s rebels are banded into numerous battalions but are less fractious than their peers in the north. The rebel leadership was able to secure the release of the UN hostages within a week. “The fight has been more contained,” explains Ahmed Naama, who heads Deraa’s rebel military council. The southern rebels are generally more moderate, too. Though some Jordanian extremists have travelled north to fight, Jabhat al-Nusra, the most devout and fiercest Islamist group, which may have as many as 10,000 men in the north, still has only a small presence in the south.
Syria’s southern neighbours are, however, still nervous of getting sucked in. Israel and Jordan have said Mr Assad must go but are loth to give wholehearted support to the rebels, as the Assad regime rains down shells and missiles on rebellious villages close to the border with Jordan. Israel has reinforced its fence on the Golan Heights. Jordan still accepts as many as 3,000 refugees from Syria every day but rebel fighters are generally not allowed a free pass, and smuggling is cracked down on. As the fighting intensifies, Jordan may struggle not to get more involved.
Source: The Economist