x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 February 2018

The man at the centre of southern Syria’s crumbling rebel alliance

Col Ahmed Nehmeh’s capture, on May 4, may prove to be a critical waypoint in the war for southern Syria, long the best organised opposition front, where moderates and radicals have co-operated as they seek to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad.

Free Syrian Army recruits training in Deraa on May 12, 2014. Mohamed Fares / Reuters
Free Syrian Army recruits training in Deraa on May 12, 2014. Mohamed Fares / Reuters

AMMAN // As he drove between meetings with rebel factions in Deraa province last month, Ahmed Nehmeh, a senior officer in the Free Syrian Army, was ambushed and, after a car chase and a gunfight, captured.

Three days later he reappeared, in a video uploaded to YouTube, a prisoner of Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s wing in Syria.

Battered and bruised, Col Nehmeh, confessed to having worked with foreign intelligence agencies to orchestrate a disastrous defeat for the opposition a year earlier, when regime forces unexpectedly retook Khirbet Ghazaleh, a strategically important town on the road to Damascus that had been all but won by rebels after two months of fighting.

Col Nehmeh’s capture in the early hours of May 4 may prove to be a critical waypoint in the war for southern Syria, long the best organised opposition front, where moderates and radicals have cooperated, avoiding the infighting that has ravaged other parts of the country and damaged the cause of those seeking to overthrow President Bashar Al Assad.

Shadowy ties

Events leading up to and following Col Nehmeh’s abduction also highlight the murky landscape of the southern front, a complex layering of moderate rebels, foreign intelligence agents, Islamist extremists, gun runners and regime spies, along with egotistical militia commanders, betrayal, courage, and conspiracy.

Col Nehmeh, a former officer in the Syrian air force, defected from the regime in 2012. From relative obscurity, he quickly rose to become head of the Deraa Military Council (DMC), a key position in the weapons supply chain connecting rebel units in the field to their foreign backers working out of Amman, and to the FSA’s Supreme Military Council (SMC) in Turkey.

At least some of the billions of dollars in munitions and cash given to rebels by western and Arab governments would pass through Col Nehmeh’s command. As a bridge between rebels in the south and their financial backers, he was able to steer aid to rebel units he favoured and withhold it from those he disliked.

Greying and with the heaviness of middle age setting in, Col Nehmeh was usually found in a first floor suite of the rundown Crystal Hotel in Amman, where his handlers in Jordanian intelligence had given him an office and a place to sleep. They had also provided him a small, silver Chevrolet hatchback to drive around town.

Those who worked with Col Nehmeh describe him as ambitious, unsentimental, and often taciturn, an opaque man with powerful, unseen friends. He won some allies among the units he backed but also made powerful enemies among those he sidelined.

His close association with foreign intelligence agencies, and his status as a former Syrian military officer about whom little was known, meant he was mistrusted by many rebel units.

Some said Col Nehmeh put the interests of his foreign benefactors ahead of the revolution. There was also speculation that he was a double agent sent by the regime.

“Many rumours surround Nehmeh, this played against him in the end. He had allies and enemies but no real friends and no one actually trusted him,” said a senior rebel figure who moved in the same circles as Col Nehmeh.

Bitter defeat

The defeat at Khirbet Ghazaleh, where rebels were poised to win an important victory, seems to have sealed his fate.

Exactly what happened there last May remains disputed, but there is no question that key elements of the rebel force were pulled off the front line at a crucial moment, giving regime units a chance to counter-attack and rout their weakened opponents.

Bashar Zaubi, a former travel agent turned commander of the rebel Yarmouk Brigade, and Col Nehmeh were the key protagonists in the affair.

Mr Zaubi’s men, backed, it has now become clear, by Jabhat Al Nusra, were the main assault force and it was they who were ordered to leave the fight after Col Nehmeh arrived at the 11th hour, supposedly delivering a consignment of weapons, which never actually materialised, and to a claim victory that never happened.

The involvement of Jabhat Al Nusra was kept quiet at the time by rebels keen to stress their moderate credentials.

In his YouTube confession, evidently extracted under duress, Col Nehmeh said he helped make the defeat at Khirbet Ghazaleh happen under orders from foreign backers, who were alarmed at the prospect of Al Nusra making such a major gain in the south.

That, ostensibly, is the reason for Al Nusra capturing him and insisting he face charges of treason against the revolution, the same charges that Mr Zaubi had levelled at Col Nehmeh after the defeat a year ago. Mr Zaubi claimed essential ammunition resupplies had been diverted away from his forces, leaving him no choice but to withdraw them.

But questions linger about why the Yarmouk Brigade, as it was then called – it is now known as the Yarmouk Division – and some other rebel factions actually pulled out.

The ill-defined command structure of the FSA meant Col Nehmeh had little direct authority to order units off the line. Within the FSA, orders are routinely ignored by proud, independent-minded field commanders.

The defeat at Khirbet Ghazaleh may be explained as much by banality as grand conspiracy: Mr Zaubi and Col Nehmeh were rivals. Angered by Col Nehmeh’s attempt to seize the glory for a battle he had played no role in, Mr Zaubi and his men pulled out.

Pride and jealously of rival rebel commanders, rather than orders from foreign intelligence agents based in the secretive Military Operations Command (MOC) room in Amman may, therefore, lay behind the debacle.

Empty promises

Col Nehmeh’s capture appears to have been prompted by various factors, central among them the steady surge in power of Al Nusra on the southern front. Emboldened, well equipped, disciplined and popular on the street, the group was able to move against Col Nehmeh, a well-connected FSA officer, without fear of coming under attack from other rebel units, something it previously feared and tried to avoid.

Al Nusra’s confidence that there would be no consequences to taking Col Nehmeh was boosted by his unpopularity among FSA fighters post-Khirbet Ghazaleh.

“Nehmeh was always making promises to everyone, saying that he would get us weapons and ammunition but in the end they never came, or not in the amounts he talked about. He was just a series of empty promises,” said a senior FSA officer.

“It might not have been his fault, Nehmeh may have been made empty promises by the MOC but in the end he was the one people saw lying to their faces,” the FSA officer said.

Increasingly, rebels bypassed him in search of supplies, dealing directly with both the MOC and independent donors based in the Arabian Gulf. Col Nehmeh, once the gateway to weapons, became increasingly irrelevant as rebels found other paths to supplies, with or without the MOC’s connivance. Col Nehmeh became dispensable and vulnerable to his enemies.

Elements of the FSA were almost certainly complicit in his capture, according to FSA commanders and opposition activists in Deraa.

Some have blamed the Yarmouk Division for settling old scores from Khirbet Ghazaleh, but a leading Yarmouk officer denied any involvement. He claimed Mr Zaubi, who also serves as second in command for the FSA’s Southern Front grouping - an FSA organisation separate from the DMC and more powerful than it - had amicably settled his differences with Col Nehmeh.

Instead, the Yarmouk Brigade officer said Col Nehmeh might have fallen foul of rifts within the opposition Syrian National Coalition (SNC) and its military wing, the SMC. Col Nehmeh was allied to Gen Selim Idriss, who was stripped of his command in February.

Al Qaeda threat

Another crucial element in the affair is that, at the time of his capture, Col Nehmeh was trying to recruit rebel brigades to a new alliance called The Rebel Front of Southern Syria. Little information has been released about this project, but an FSA source said that at a meeting on May 1 in the town of Tfas, Col Nehmeh had told prospective members that they would be well supplied with weapons if they agreed to fight Al Nusra.

“Nehmeh was going to go after Nusra, he was setting up a group to kill Nusra off in the south, that was the project and information about that was leaked by one of the people in the meeting, so Nusra decided the time had come to act,” the FSA source said.

If the account is true, Col Nehmeh was surely backed by powerful allies, likely foreign intelligence. Western and Arab states have watched Al Nusra’s growth in the south with alarm and have been seeking to weaken the Al Qaeda faction.

Another dynamic playing out in the Nehmeh affair, according to senior rebel commanders, is a trenchant the hostility between Jordanian intelligence and the exiled radical Jordanian Islamists who command Al Nusra in southern Syria.

“Nehmeh was seen as Jordan’s man and the Jordanian emirs in Al Nusra wanted to defy Jordanian intelligence so they got to him,” said another FSA commander familiar with the situation. “It was a way of Nusra flexing its muscle and embarrassing the Jordanians and the MOC. They are saying, ‘inside Syria, we are the real power, not you’.”

Col Nehmeh’s capture pushed the FSA and Al Nusra to the brink of war after negotiations to have him stand trial in a joint military tribunal failed. But the FSA backed down from threats to take their commander back by force.

Coordination between Al Nusra and the FSA has, however, been frozen – at least publicly. While some cooperation appears to be taking place still in the town of Nawa, the divisions are weakening the rebels just as the regime has launched a fierce counter assault in the south, one that appears to have been timed to coincide with the rebel schism.

Col Nehmeh’s fate remains unknown. He is either still in Nusra’s hands or, some say, has already been executed.

“The ones who have benefited most from all of this are the regime,” said an FSA commander. “In the end, it has just shown how weak we are”.

psands@thenational.ae