The Spectacle Blog

Syria’s Southern Strategy

By on 8.28.13 | 12:27PM

Getting involved in Syria is a bad idea. But if you want to read the best case for war, check out Michael Weiss's long argument in Foreign Affairs today, and especially the part about rebel fighters in the south:

Little covered by the international press and policy wonks, in recent months, the southern front in Syria has seen rebel units backed by the West and its allies winning more and more territory at the expense of both Assad and al Qaeda, which has been using the war in Syria as an opportunity to expand its reach to establish what it hopes will be a Islamic emirate in advance of a worldwide caliphate. The credit for this goes mainly to Saudi Arabia and to what it calls its “southern strategy,” or the buildup of rebel forces in and around Damascus, particularly in the towns of Barzeh, Jobar, and Qaboun, where rebels have seized regime weapons caches and even overtaken an electrical facility. All of these towns are located in Eastern Ghouta district, the very same area that Assad gassed last week and had gassed before then, too.

As part of its southern strategy, Saudi Arabia has worked closely with Jordan -- a development that Saudi Arabia has downplayed, even denied, owing to King Abdullah’s fear that Assad will retaliate against his southern neighbor. Together, the two countries and their American, British, and French counterparts have set up and run an undisclosed joint operations center in Jordan to train vetted Syrian rebels in tactical warfare methods, intelligence, counterintelligence, and weapons application. One Syrian I interviewed this month confirmed that his brother had recently been through the training program. He remarked on the stark before-and-after contrast in his sibling’s martial skills, which now include proper breathing techniques during aiming a rifle. Roughly 1,000 trainees are said to have graduated from the program so far.

This suggests a geographic degree of separation between the al-Nusrah Islamists and the Free Syrian Army. It's true that the FSA has had military success in southern Syria (though Assad did wrest control of a crucial southern city), while the Nusrah are concentrated primarily in the north. But that doesn't mean things have to stay that way. Middle East fighters trained and supplied by America have a bad habit of coming back to shoot at us later on. Additionally, such a geographic division isn't very comforting once Assad is gone. A post-Assad Syria will have to be a single Syria unified under the rule of law. That seems impossible if the north is controlled by Islamists who want Sharia and the south is controlled by democrats. Weiss believes the Nusrah's position is weakening. But the most likely outcome is still a second civil war, even if that proximate conflict is between north and south, as well as jihadist and moderate.

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