BEIRUT, Lebanon — If there’s any hope, it lies in the south. At least that’s how many Western countries are beginning to view the war in Syria.
For much of the four-year-long conflict, the eyes of the world and most of the fighting have been focused on the country’s north. The porous border with Turkey was a vital crossing point for the various rebel groups that sprung up in the early days of the uprising. It was in the northern countryside that rebels saw some of their major successes.
But recent advances by the Southern Front — a coalition of rebel groups — appears to have shifted focus to the other end of the country.
Since early last year, the Southern Front has been making steady progress against Bashar al-Assad’s forces. It now controls a large expanse of territory along the border with Jordan, including most of Quneitra and Daraa, parts of Damascus and the Qalamoun region.
An operation is currently underway to capture the provincial capital of Daraa, where the revolution began, and the surrounding area. The fall of the city would be a major blow to Assad’s forces, coming not long after the fall of Idlib in the north.
“The regime is controlling mainly three to four neighborhoods in the city [of Daraa]. That is about 35-40 percent of the city, and we control 60 percent,” Issam al-Rayyes, a spokesman for the Southern Front, told GlobalPost.
“The Southern Front has longed planned for this liberation. You can imagine how the regime is doing all it can. The fighting is very tough. We are expecting a long-term operation,” he added.
While most fighting groups that fit the West’s definition of “moderate” have been forced out of rebel-held territory in the north, rebels in the south have sought to portray themselves as the protectors of the original goals of the revolution.
The coalition of 49 rebel groups was announced in February 2014, in a statement that espoused moderation at a time when moderates had all but disappeared. (The number of rebel groups has since risen to 54.)
“There is no room for sectarianism and extremism in our society, and they will find no room in Syria’s future,” the statement said.
The group claims some 35,000 fighters in the south, and links with smaller Free Syrian Army groups elsewhere in the country.
The Southern Front’s stated commitment to a democratic Syria and its willingness to distance itself from extremist groups like Jabhat al-Nusra have made it a major recipient of funding and weapons from the US and Jordan, both of whom are wary of supporting extremist groups in Syria.
Since early last year, the US has sent small arms and anti-tank weapons to southern rebels via Jordan. The Southern Front has publicly distanced itself from al-Nusra, and the coalition said last month that it had “prohibited” Nusra from joining Operation Southern Storm.
“There has been some tactical coordination with them when necessary in the past,” says Rayyes, “but we don’t share any resources, any planning, or ideology. We have differing views.”
“They are not happy with this, that is why we are facing some troubles,” he added.
US backing of the Southern Front appears to be an attempt to avoid repeating mistakes it made in the north of the country, where a reluctance to back moderate forces allowed extremist groups to gain ground. (A number of extremist groups, including al-Nusra, do operate in the south, but they do not hold the same sway as they do in the north).
“Because of lack of support and delay and reacting to the revolution, those [more moderate] groups got weaker and other groups got stronger. The Southern Front changed the situation,” said Rayyes.
More from GlobalPost: Interview with a Southern Front commander
Since then, the US has increased its support to those forces making the right noises — the Kurds in Syria and Iraq being the best example. The Southern Front seems to be acutely aware of this fact.
Still, Rayyes told GlobalPost that assistance isn’t enough.
“People talk about sophisticated weapons, but 80 percent of our weaponry is what we have captured from the regime. This lethal support we get from other countries is mainly ammunition. It is not fixed, it is not stable,” he said. “We could control the capital with more support.”
Whether the Southern Front offers a model for the rest of the country is another story. Aron Lund, an analyst and editor of the Carnegie Endowment’s “Syria in Crisis” blog, describes the coalition as a “very loose construct which mostly seems to signify that member factions are approved for support and that they will in return toe the line politically, distancing themselves from al-Qaeda and respecting instructions on what not to attack from Amman.”
There doesn’t appear to be any major initiative in the offing to expand the Southern Front to the north. Part of the reason for its success has been its “limited ambitions,” according to Lund. A real test for the group, he said, will be if they can seize Daraa “and control it in some reasonably stable fashion.”
It is perhaps more for this reason that the battle in Daraa is so important. Is the Southern Front capable of not only capturing territory, but administering it too? Can democratic, civil rule succeed in the south while the rest of the country is mired in chaos? Will the Southern Front’s success, helped by the US, cause other rebel leaders to reevaluate their (bad) relationship with democracy?
These are all questions the group’s leadership is focused on.
“We have prepared a lot for a civil administration [in Daraa],” said Rayyes. “We have done lots of panning to protect the city after the liberation. Our aim is not to destroy the state, but to destroy the Assad regime.”