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Syrian Rebels Say Southern Front Strategy Hasn't Hurt Assad Yet

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FREE SYRIAN ARMY
In this Dec. 17, 2012, file photo, a member of the rebel Free Syrian Army takes cover during fighting with government forces in Azaz, Syria. (AP Photo/Virginie Nguyen Huang) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

IRBID, Jordan -- Syrian rebel leaders, fighters and advisers in Jordan warn that a major American-backed effort to support the war against President Bashar Assad in the south of Syria is doing little.

Three months after foreign backers, including the U.S., encouraged the creation of the Southern Front -- a loose coalition of about 50 moderate rebel units coordinated from the Jordanian capital of Amman -- the rebels have made few gains.

In northern Jordan, where many Syrian fighters live with their families during periodic breaks from the battlefield, rebels said the changes brought by the Southern Front have been mostly cosmetic: They have led to few increases in aid and even fewer battlefield successes.

"There is coordination, but there are no practical results," said Abu Walid, a former brigadier general in the Syrian army who defected to the rebels in 2012. Once a member of the U.S.-backed Free Syrian Army, he left that moderate rebel group last year and now aids other rebel units with planning their operations.

Walid added that the moderate rebel groups struggle to remain relevant in the face of influential Islamist extremist groups.

"Frankly, all of the successful operations recently in the south aren't because of the Southern Front. It's because of Jabhat al-Nusra," he said, referring to al-Qaeda's branch in Syria. "The military groups who are doing the successful operations in the south are not in this new structure."

A recent uptick in foreign assistance, led by the U.S. in coordination with Saudi Arabia, has been well publicized, but rebels said it still falls well short of their needs.

After the failure of the Geneva peace talks earlier this year seemingly ended the possibility of removing Assad through negotiations, rebel units were forced out of Qalamoun, a strategic area along Syria's Lebanese border. Infighting between Islamist militias and moderate rebels like the Free Syrian Army flared into open combat.

In response, foreign backers sought to boost rebel fortunes in southern Syria, where the Free Syrian Army is more powerful than in the Islamist-dominated north. In February, a coalition including the largest FSA units in the south announced the Southern Front.

The front gathered rebel units under the supervision of an "operations room" in Amman, where officials from the United States and Saudi Arabia, among others, oversee the war effort. Since its formation, rebels said, field operation rooms have been added inside Syria to improve coordination between units. Fighters now receive small salaries to help offset the appeal of Islamist groups, which are generally better-funded, and some fighters are sent for American-led training at a base in Jordan.

But analysts describe the impact so far as limited.

"It's nothing dramatic, and it's not sort of the big push that people, I think, imagined ... after Geneva failed," said Aron Lund, a researcher who wrote about the Syrian conflict for the Carnegie Center for International Peace. "As a response to that, it's pretty weak."

Rebel leaders said that the provision of salaries, around $25 a month per person, has had more of an effect than the co-ordination. Units have sometimes reported inflated membership numbers to obtain more funding, the leaders readily acknowledged to The WorldPost.

The pay has helped stem defections to Islamist units, they said. Abu Hayan, leader of the Shield of al-Lajah Brigade, claimed to have brought in about 200 new recruits in the past two months.

"It's not much, but at least now you can touch something," he said of the salaries. "Before there was nothing. Now you trust there might be something in the future."

The Syrian rebels have repeatedly asked for more supplies and advanced weaponry, especially man-portable air defense systems, or MANPADS. Syrian opposition leaders traveled this week to Washington to plead their case for greater American help. So far, the U.S. has vetoed the delivery of such weapons, fearing they could be captured and used outside Syria.

But in recent weeks, American-made anti-tank weapons have begun appearing in Syria with moderate rebel units -- a possible precursor to ramped-up supply efforts. USA Today reported that the anti-tank missiles are part of a "pilot program" to gauge which moderate rebel groups approved by the U.S. can maintain control of such weapons -- an interpretation that Lund said was plausible. At least nine rebel groups have posted videos on YouTube showing their members using the American-made missiles, which he said could be an effort to reassure U.S. backers.

"That seems to be testing these groups," said Lund. "They get the missiles. They shoot a tape of themselves firing them and report back and show that they can be trusted with heavy gear."

Those new weapons, along with the salaries, have raised cautious hope among some rebels.

"We have trust in the Americans that they will make the right decisions in the end," said a defected Syrian military officer and member of the prominent Talas family from the city of Homs, a family that has ties to the Assad government. The officer, who would give only his family name for safety reasons, said he is in "daily" contact with rebel leaders and the foreign officials who help supply them.

But all the rebels who spoke to The WorldPost offered their optimism in obviously unconvinced tones.

Saeed, a fighter from the Salah al-Din Brigade, said he hoped more weapons would show up, but couldn't say why this time might be different. "We have a lot of promises," he said.

Despite his trust, even Talas had a blunt assessment of the U.S. role in the war: "A country like Somalia could help us as much as America."

Wajd Dahnie and Abdulrahman al-Masri contributed reporting.

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