Transcript: Phil Sands on Syria’s fragmenting southern front
A conversation with The National’s long-time Syria correspondent Phil Sands about his work covering the war in the south, known as the southern front. The transcript of this interview was lightly edited.
What is the situation on Syria’s southern front? What kind of ground do the rebels hold and where are the regime focus?
The regime is going on the offensive there at the moment. They basically had lost a fair amount of ground there to the rebels over the last couple of years. The rebels hold a lot of Deraa city, which is the main urban centre in the south, right on the Jordanian border. And they hold a lot of territory to the west of the area as well on the border with Israel and the Golan Heights.
The regime is still strong, however. The regime is present in the northern part of Deraa city and to the east where Sweida is, which is largely a Druze area and the regime is pretty strong there. It’s not as though it’s all held by the rebels or all held by the regime. But the rebels hold a large area of territory and it’s just not that far from Damascus, which is probably why the regime is so worried about it, in contrast to the north where the rebels probably hold more or as much physical territory, but it’s just that much more distant from Damascus.
Audio clip The regime seems to have launched a new assault in the last couple of weeks. After taking Homs back, after pullout there by the rebels, it looks like the regime has decided its got the resources to throw at the south. It has been pushing them hard there. Rebel commanders are saying that they’ve faced the most intensive attacks in the south now since this started. That’s air strikes and artillery and tank units moving in. Part of that might be that the rebels have been pushing on some very strategically important areas and military sites near the border with Israel. Some hilltops there where they have communications centres and weapons bases and so on. The regime seems very keen to hold onto those.
Can you describe the humanitarian situation in the south?
Audio clip The humanitarian situation in the south is pretty dire. It’s not as bad as in other places though. It’s not as though it gets as much attention. They are not starving to death like they are in some parts of Damascus. They’ve got enough water just about and they are managing to supply themselves with food. It’s not the same dire straits. It’s a large farming area around Deraa. I think people are reverting to living off the land and they have some capacity to do that. It’s not a drought area. There are water resources, you can sink a well. So I think people are managing to make that work.
But there’s a huge amount of displacement. Wherever there’s been fighting people will have to leave. There’s a major part of Deraa city, a place called Mukkhayim, which has basically been turned to rubble. It’s been demolished. So tens of thousands of people have had to leave Deraa, which is a very densely populated area and the only place they can really go is out to the countryside.
People are filling up small villages and filling up small farmhouses and farm buildings and setting up camps on farmland and in orchards. There’s been massive displacement. We’re talking tens of thousands of people, upwards of 60,000 people living in tent cities that are starting to spring up there and living in farm buildings. None of these have got proper sewage or food provision facilities. There’s no schools. They don’t really have electricity, the electricity is shut off a lot of the time. But people are pretty resourceful. Syrians are pretty resourceful people. People from Deraa are pretty resourceful and they weren’t particularly poor before the uprising started. So they have had some resources to fall back on. And they are people who know how to farm. They are people that know how to sink wells. I think they managing.
Moderate rebels were known to collaborate at times with Al Qaeda in their fight against the regime. Can you describe how the current split between these two groups occurred in the south of Syria?
Audio clipFor a long time the moderates, if we call them the moderates and the FSA, and some more moderate Islamist brigades, have been very keen to downplay the presence of and the role of Jabhat Al Nusra, the official Al Qaeda affiliate in Syria. They were very, very much at pains to say that Al Nusra was really not a major player, that they had a small presence that was not significant and they would sometimes piggy-back on operations and claim the credit for it. They’d also stress that ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, the group so extreme that even Al Qaeda kicked it out, they also don’t really have a presence in Deraa. So it was long seen as very much a moderate front.
That view has collapsed, almost over the past several weeks, with Al Nusra really announcing its presence there by kidnapping a Free Syrian Army officer, a senior officer called Ahmed Nehmeh. He was a key link between the Free Syrian Army and their foreign backers in terms of weapons supplies and cash and so on to rebel brigades inside Syria. Al Nusra kidnapped him and forced a confession out of him. Basically, they said they are going to put him on trial. They refused to negotiate over that. They were not going to hand him over to the FSA. And the FSA has backed down on that. So effectively Al Nusra has taken one of the FSA’s senior officers and the FSA has done nothing about it.
That’s really exploded this myth that Al Nusra didn’t have much presence there. It’s very difficult to get into southern Syria. I think it’s probably safe to say there are no foreign journalists working there, at least Western journalists. There’s just no access. So it’s very difficult to piece together what is happening there. We had tended to believe or tended to have this message that Al Nusra wasn’t very present. In the last few months, from what we’ve been told, Al Nusra has really significantly increased its size. It’s managed to attract fighters who used to be with the FSA. It’s got funding, it’s got popularity, it has kinda got a clean reputation there. They don’t steal, they are very effective fighters. They seem to have played a much more significant role in a lot of these battles then had been pushed to observers by moderate rebels. It might be the moderate rebels had wanted to keep that away from the West. They hadn’t wanted Western weapons suppliers, or Gulf weapons suppliers to be frightened away by the presence of Al Qaeda. Also, they themselves don’t really like to acknowledge it. They like to see themselves as moderate. Deraa is a fiercely, proudly, almost tribal area. They call themselves big families not tribes. They pride themselves in having links to the West and links to the Gulf and education and not being religious extremists. And yet this element of religious extremism has crept in there. A lot of that has to do with Jordanian, Saudi, and Libyan emirs who have gone in as foreign fighters and taken the lead of Al Nusra in the south. So most of the rank and file, which might be about 2,000 fighters, are local guys. The moderates say these are local guys, they are not Al Qaeda ideologically. They are our brothers and sons and nephews and none of them know who the Al Qaeda leadership is and they really don’t care about fighting the Americans or fighting the Israelis. They are very much fighting the regime. But the ideological leadership of Al Nusra in the south is very much Al Qaeda.
What is the secret military command centre in Jordan that seems to be giving weapons and military advice to the rebels?
Audio clip It’s known as the MOC by rebels, which stands for military operations command, which seems to be a very Western piece of military jargon. It’s basically general intelligence directorate headquarters in Amman, effectively the head of Jordanian secret services. Apparently there is an operations room there, where a dozen or so military officers from a dozen or so countries, including the US and Gulf countries and some EU states, sit there and advise the FSA on it’s military operations and supply them with weapons and cash. Right down to the point if FSA bridges want to launch an operation they will go in with their plans and run them by these military experts from various supporting countries, who will then say you should tweak this part of the plan, you need more men, you need certain weapons to do this. They’ll advise them whether or not to go ahead with it and whether or not they’ve got the resources to do so.
Audio clip There’s a tension between the rebels and this MOC. The rebels want to have the help of their backers. They want this military expertise and they certainly want weapons. But at the same time they very much feel that they are being manipulated. They are kept on a very short leash. They get funding, but the funding comes through on a monthly basis, which the rebels basically say it’s no way to fight a war knowing you’ve only got enough money for the next month. There’s no way to plan ahead. They are kept on a very short leash. They don’t feel that they are getting whole-hearted commitment from the MOC to give them what they need to win the war. In fact, they are saying, is the MOC helping us or is it there to monitor to us and to keep us in a box.
It is a secret, it’s something the Jordanian authorities say does not exist. Technically, it does not exist. It has not been acknowledged formally by any of the states that have people inside it. But it’s kinda an open secret. And these Western officers and so forth do meet with rebels all over the place. There’s a lot of intelligence agencies at play in southern Syria, which makes for a sort of murky and confused situation.
What are the differences between the southern front and the northern front?
Audio clip There are some significant differences. The north is just fractured into uncountable rebel groups who have fought each other every bit as much as they have fought the regime. It’s just collapsed into absolute chaos there. In part because the Turkish border was open and so freely crossed by some of these foreign extremists.
In the south, in contrast to that, the Jordanians have kept a very tight control on the border, certainly after the first few months. They continue to do so today. The rebels will say that literally nothing, not even a piece of paper or a pen, can cross the border without it getting signed off by the Jordanians. They’ve managed to keep the real extremists out of it. Some have managed to get down there. But that’s something that the moderates in the southern front are really pleased about and really grateful to the Jordanian authorities for doing. They say that’s stopped it descending into the kind of chaos they’ve seen elsewhere.
Sometimes they don’t like to be a called a tribal area, there are basically some big families in Deraa, tribes effectively, a handful of those. They are very powerful and very close-knit. Everyone knows everybody. So that’s given them a real sense of cohesion and solidarity that outsiders haven’t been able to come in and divide them as well as they have in other places. They do seem to have this sense of being moderate, priding themselves in education and having a somewhat secular view of religion. Religion has its place and civil society has its place.
That of course is changing. Some of those old habits are breaking down now. And I think Jabhat Al Nusra is the joker in the pack in a sense because it is circumventing some of these old systems. Still, at the moment there are courts and they are run by a mixture of religious figures and local tribal sheikhs and local respected people. They are still sorting out their own problems and they can also administer themselves. They are cleaning the streets where they control them. There is a sense of cohesion and cooperation that there it very much in contrast to the north and the east of the country.
It’s also much more uniform in terms of its sectarian make-up. It’s mainly Sunnis. There are a few Christians and there’s really one town of Shiites down in the south before you get to
Sweida where the Druze are. There’s not the same kind of sectarian problems they’ve had elsewhere, which again makes it, as far as the rebels are concerned, a much more promising front.
You lived in Syria for a number of years before the uprising began. What was it like?
Audio clip I first went to Syria in 2003. I lived there more or less full-time from 2005-2006. For awhile I was the only foreign, accredited correspondent there. I eventually got required to leave in February 2013. More than a year ago now. It seems like a long time.
It was a good place to live. I lived in the suburbs of Damascus. When the uprising broke out, and a lot of people hadn’t expected it to, but when it broke out in Deraa, in the south, in March 2011, it came as a surprise to a lot of people. It also blew the lid off the sense that all was well in Syria. Not that people were necessarily highly supportive of the regime all the time or financially in good situations. But it was seen as a kind of place where there wouldn’t be these sort of problems. The poverty was worse that people acknowledged, the economic inequality was worse, the underlying sectarianism perhaps was worse. There was a lot of resentment against the Assad regime and its domination of the positions and against the Alawites for their domination of positions. It was simmering away. If it hadn’t been simmering away it would have never blown up as it did. In fact, when the first protesters were shot by the regime in Deraa on the 18th of March, that triggered it, that started this revolution. A couple of guys were killed at a peaceful protest and the lid just blew off it. It changed the whole place now. Syria is unrecognisable.
Can you describe some of your reporting trips to Deraa before being forced to leave Syria?
Audio clip After the uprising started in 2012, I did make a couple of secretive trips down down to Deraa. We were not officially allowed to go there by the information ministry. Foreign journalists were not welcomed there. But I had some contacts that snuck me down there. It was a surreal situation. Security were all over the place and in the streets. But there were areas where they weren’t. They’d been pushed out by protesters and the fledgling Free Syrian Army. It was strange to see parts of the city effectively liberated. I did go into that area, Mukkhayim, and looked around there. They had field hospitals and so on. Of course that’s all gone now. That’s been blown apart. There was a lot of resentment. A lot of hope. A lot of resentment against the regime. A lot of hope that things would change. And I think a fierce pride that they’d managed to stand up to this regime. They were very proud of themselves for having had the courage to do it and being the first people to go out and do it.
Audio clip I was detained by military security on one of those trips when I was leaving. It was a frightening and strange experience. I was taken at a checkpoint trying to leave, the last checkpoint out of the city after which I would have been fine and on the road home. The army took me off and took me to one side and questioned me and then they took me back into Deraa, they drove me back in civilians cars and they drove really really quickly because the sun was falling and they were very frightened of being ambushed by the FSA.
We went into the military intelligence headquarters, in the centre of town, opposite the White Rose hotel where the UN was staying at the time. I was questioned by military intelligence officers about what I was doing there. I explained in a way that didn’t compromise anybody I had been traveling with. We’d worked that out in advance. It was a frightening experience. I was let out after nine or 10 hours. It was dark and they were just going to throw me out in the street and I was worried about being shot by a sniper or something. In the end the military intelligence people agreed to drive me to the hotel where the UN were staying. They had something of an argument about that because none of them wanted to go out on the streets after dark in case they were ambushed.
Again, that really underlined, back in 2012, just how things and changed. The regime had been so imperious and immune to everything, and certainly not challenged for so long: these feared security officers were actually frightened themselves to go out in the streets. I’ll always remember that.
Updated: June 1, 2014 04:00 AM