Jihadists try to rally opposition in southern Syria

Jihadist groups in Syria are attempting to rally insurgents against an offensive launched by the Assad regime, Russia and their allies in the southwest part of the country. Syrian and Russian warplanes have been pounding locations inside the city of Daraa, as well as areas in the surrounding countryside, for more than a week. Daraa province is located near the border with Jordan and the Golan Heights.

Jihadist organizations, including Hay’at Tahrir al Sham (HTS) and the “Guardians of Religion,” are calling on all insurgents to join forces against the onslaught. The jihadists’ insurgency has stalled over the last year or more, with leadership rivalries, infighting and doctrinal differences fracturing their formerly potent coalition. They likely hope to jumpstart the anti-Assad coalition, which has struggled to win any meaningful battles of late.

On June 24, via its Ebaa News Agency, HTS issued a statement noting that the US had said it wouldn’t interfere in the Assad regime’s offensive. In a separate message that same day, HTS reported that Russian aircraft had joined the battle.

In a third message on June 24, HTS called for a joint operations room to be established, such that all factions and groups could overcome their internal “disputes” and “close the ranks” around the mujahideen and their families in southern Syria. HTS also encouraged all “journalists, politicians, businessmen, civil organizations and institutions to shoulder the responsibility of defending the liberated south” with both “material and moral support.” Referring to the fact that HTS is headquartered in the northwestern Syrian province of Idlib, the group claimed that the “strong heroes of the north” could “change the equation and turn the table” on the Assad regime if the jihadists and other fighters “unite our ranks and fight against the enemy.”

The following day, June 25, the “Guardians of Religion” organization (Hurras al-Deen) issued its own call to arms in southern Syria. Although the group said it was willing “to cooperate” with anyone who wants “to undertake this duty” of defending southern Syria, it did not explicitly mention the HTS statement one day before.

The “Guardians of Religion” was formally launched earlier this year and, based on the way al Qaeda-affiliated social media channels have promoted the group, it appears to be led by al Qaeda loyalists. Shortly after the organization was announced in February, it issued a statement calling on all Muslims to fight against the Assad regime in the eastern Ghouta. That rallying cry, which echoed similar statements from al Qaeda’s senior leadership, failed to generate any meaningful operations. It also failed to lead to jihadist unity.

For instance, on June 18, HTS released a video decrying the State Department’s decision to amend its terrorist designation for Al Nusrah Front to include HTS. The organization argues that it has broken off from al Qaeda entirely, but the US government claims it is still an al Qaeda “affiliate.” In the video, HTS claimed that al Qaeda’s senior leaders had “disavowed the secession” of HTS from their ranks. HTS also argued that the “Guardians of Religion” group is the one linked to al Qaeda — a move that was decried by pro-al Qaeda sources online, because it seemingly painted a crosshairs on HTS’s jihadist rivals.

HTS supported a joint offensive in Daraa last year, but its efforts failed to generate a victory. In Feb. 2017, HTS and other groups pushed into the regime’s strongholds in Daraa city. The anti-Assad forces in Daraa coordinated their movements in a joint military operations room known as Al Bunyan al Marsous. Images from the fighting released by HTS included both the group’s official logo, representing a famous mosque in Damascus, as well as the watermark used by Al Bunyan al Marsous. HTS suicide bombers drove vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs) into key regime-controlled locations early on in the battle.

Now, more than year a later, HTS and other rebel groups are calling for joint efforts against the regime in Daraa once again. However, HTS faces even more obstacles this time, as the Sunni jihadists’ infighting has further complicated its efforts.

The humanitarian situation in Daraa is dire. The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have been displaced thus far. The UN has also “received credible reports of at least 13 casualties, including children, and many more injuries since 23 June due to the intensification of military operations and a subsequent ground offensive.” The operations have included “[i]ndiscriminate strikes against civilian infrastructure,” reportedly destroying “a health center and a civil defense center in Bisr El-Harir city,” as well as rendering “a hospital in Hirak out of service.”

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

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