The Islamic State and Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, are fighting for some of Syria’s most obscure territory.
ARA News, an Erbil-based news agency, recently reported that Islamic State attacked Jabhat Al Nusra in Daraa Governorate, hundreds of miles from the former’s bases in Raqqa and the latter’s bases in Idlib.
Rebels have occupied parts of Daraa since 2011. The region is squeezed between Damascus, the Jordanian border and the Golan Heights. While a neglected front of the war, the regime has gradually lost ground there — and that’s a big deal. The more the regime loses in Daraa, the greater the rebel threat to the capital … the Syrian government’s biggest prize.
According to ARA News, at least eight Nusra fighters died in the attack.
Neglected though Daraa is as a battlefield, Arab and Western intelligence agencies used to consider it an opportunity.
The governorate remains one of the few battlegrounds in Syria where the Free Syrian Army, regarded by its supporters as nationalist and secularist, can compete the Islamic State, Nusra and other members of the Syrian opposition that favor an Islamic government.
Aron Lund of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace explained the region’s significance in June. Loosely-affiliated FSA rebels under the Amman-based Military Operations Center — itself affiliated with the U.S.-led coalition — have seen some success in Daraa.
The MOC appears to have been reasonably effective at its task. In contrast to earlier haphazard attempts to fund the anti-Assad rebels, the southern insurgency has developed slowly and fairly consistently since 2014, presumably to avoid the kind of chaos that could open the way for an extremist takeover and add to Jordan’s refugee problem. This is surely one explanation for the relatively weaker position of extremist factions among the rebels in southern Syria than in the north (not to mention the east, where the Islamic State has expelled all rivals).
However, Islamic State has expanded, attacking civilians and fighters in territory controlled by the Syrian opposition and the Syrian government in Daraa, Quneitra and Suwayda governorates. Local members of the FSA have even defected to the Islamic State.
Daraa remains an opportunity for nationalists and secularists to prove themselves against the Syrian government and the Islamists. Yet ambitious ideas of arming rebels in Daraa may become fantasies now that the country’s two strongest terrorist organizations have expanded their rivalry south.
Nusra commander Anas Abu Nabut also reportedly died in the attack. The rebel group will want to avenge him. How that revenge will disturb rebel politics in Daraa remains a mystery. It could affect the FSA most of all.