The Battle for al-Quneitra, the “Gateway to Damascus”

Publication: Terrorism Monitor Volume: 12 Issue: 5

A tank confiscated by rebel fighters fires at a pro-government position near the Syrian city of Hama on February 19, 2014 (Source AFP

Syria’s southwestern al-Quneitra governorate, bordering the Israeli-controlled Golan Heights and the UN administered demilitarized zone, is an active area of conflict between the armed opposition and forces loyal to the Assad regime. In addition to the geo-political significance of al-Quneitra, the governorate is important to the Assad government because it is geographically situated 70 kilometers from Damascus, linking both the Syrian military and the armed opposition to the highly-contested battle fronts in Damascus’ eastern and southern suburbs and in the southern Dera’a governorate, a region of strong armed opposition along the Syrian-Jordanian border. The Syrian armed opposition estimates that it controls 80 percent of al-Quneitra governorate, particularly the southern districts of the province bordering northern Dera’a governorate (al-Safir [Beirut], February 26). 

Al-Quneitra was an area of major fighting in May 2013, when the short-lived Free Syrian Army (FSA) seizure of the Quneitra crossing on the Syrian-Israeli border led to the deployment of Syrian armor to retake the border post and dislodge opposition fighters from the area (Times of Israel [Jerusalem], June 6, 2013). It is reported that the Syrian military’s deployment in the demilitarized zone led to a series of strongly-worded and threatening communiqués from the Israeli government concerning the intentions of the Syrian military in the area (Haaretz [Tel Aviv], August 6, 2013). 

Two recent initiatives of the FSA Supreme Military Council (FSA-SMC) and allied armed opposition groups have placed increased attention on al-Quneitra. The first of these events was the February 16 announcement that the FSA-SMC has replaced its former leader, Brigadier General Salim Idris, with Brigadier General Abdel Illah al-Bashir, a defected Syrian army officer from al-Quneitra who is the commander of the FSA-SMC’s al-Quneitra front and a member of the important southern Syrian al-Nu’ami tribe (Reuters, February 16). Members of the tribe in al-Quneitra are reported to be among the strongest supporters of General al-Bashir (al-Akhbar [Beirut], February 17). 

It is reported that this change of leadership within the FSA-SMC was prompted by the organization’s desire to re-emphasize the FSA’s strength in Syria’s southern governorates (Reuters, February 16). A senior FSA commander, Brigadier General Abdullah al-Qarazi, referred to the strategy behind his organization’s renewed focus on southern Syria by stating: “Dera’a province is the gateway to Damascus. The battle for Damascus starts from here” (AFP, February 18). Related to the FSA’s renewed focus on southern Syria is the February 14 announcement of the creation of the Southern Front by a coalition of 49 armed opposition groups, the majority of which are active in Dera’a, al-Quneitra, al-Suweida and Reef Damascus governorates. The constituent armed groups of Jabhat al-Janoubiya, most of which are affiliated or allied with the FSA, claim to number 30,000 fighters. The movement currently maintains a loosely organized command structure that provides freedom for its constituent armed groups’ leaders to act independently: 

We are the voice of moderation and [a] strong shield for the Syrian people… to liberate Syria from the dictatorship of Assad and from extremism… to defend the right of the Syrian people to choose a representative government… we work toward the formation of a government that truly represents the people, that respects minorities and that ensures and respects the rights and beliefs of all Syrians, without ethnic or religious discrimination. [1] 

Several Islamist armed opposition groups that are not formally associated with FSA or its partner, the opposition civilian political organization the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), have been as active as the FSA in the fighting for control of al-Quneitra governorate. Of these groups, one of the most prominent is Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya (Islamic Movement of the Free Ones of the Levant), part of the Jabhat al-Islamiya (JI – Islamic Front; for more information on Harakat Ahrar al-Sham and the JI, see Terrorism Monitor, April 4, 2013; MLM Briefs, November, 2013). The militant Salafist group has launched a series of campaigns in southern al-Quneitra governorate and the Izra district of northwestern Dera’a governorate, particularly in and around the villages of al-Hijah, Ain al-Tineh and Sweisa, located near the heavily-contested Dera’a towns of Jasim and Nawa. Campaigns launched by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya in this region of Syria include November 2013’s Ma’rakat Fajr Tawhid (Dawn of Holy Unity Battle) and the ongoing Ma’rakat Fajr al-R’abiah (Dawn of Spring Battle), which the group has promoted heavily via social media outlets. [2] Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya’s offensive in southeastern al-Quneitra has succeeded in seizing Syrian military equipment, including small arms, ammunition and military vehicles. [3] 

Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya’s militant Salafist ally and al-Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra (JN-Victory Front) has also been actively involved in the fighting in southern al-Quneitra and northwestern Dera’a, particularly in and around Jasim and Nawa, where it has focused on taking control of the local Jasim-Nawa highway to relieve the Syrian military siege of the town. [4] The Assad government has highlighted JN’s involvement in the fighting in this region, asserting that fighters from JN attacked and killed eight civilians in the pro-Assad village of al-Duweiya al-Saghra in al-Quneitra (SANA [Damascus], February 13). 

The ongoing offensives launched by Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiya and JN in this region are being conducted simultaneously with another armed opposition campaign named Ma’rakat Fajr Tawhid 2 (Dawn of Holy Unity Battle 2), which is being waged by a coalition of Islamist armed opposition groups led by the suburban Damascus and al-Quneitra-based organization Alwiya al-Furqan (The Criterion Brigades; for more information on Alwiya al-Furqan see MLM Briefs, March 2013). 

Fajr Tawhid 2 is the continuation of a November 2013 armed opposition campaign named Ma’rakat al-Safat (Battle of the Ranks) and led by Alwiya al-Furqan that is attempting to cut off the north-south Damascus-Quneitra highway by attacking Syrian military outposts and checkpoints along the road (Sham Times [Damascus], November 13, 2013; al-Dorar al-Shamiyya [Damascus], February 9). [5] 

The fighting for al-Quneitra, particularly in the southern districts of the governorate, is a strategic battle that both the al-Assad government and the Syrian armed opposition are likely to continue to wage into the foreseeable future. 

Al-Quneitra’s strategic position between the armed opposition controlled southern and central districts of Dera’a governorate and the battlefields of suburban Damascus make it a necessary region for both the government and the Syrian opposition to control. Although there is renewed FSA attention to the southern front, including al-Quneitra, the active presence of potentially competing, non-FSA Islamist and militant Salafist-led campaigns in the fighting for the governorate is likely to complicate rebel efforts to coordinate a cohesive response to renewed Syrian military attacks and pressure in al-Quneitra and northern Dera’a governorates. 

Nicholas A. Heras is an independent analyst and consultant on Middle East issues and a former David L. Boren Fellow. 

Notes 

1. “49 Factions Declare the ‘Southern Front’ in 5 Governorates,” Zaman al-Wasl [Damascus], February 13, 2014, https://www.zamanalwsl.net/news/46545.html.

2. “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham-Starting the Dawn of Holy Unity Battle,” Harakat Ahrar al-Sham al-Islamiyya website, November 27, 2013, http://ahraralsham.net/?p=3953; “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham-Issuing the Dawn of Spring Battle-Liberate al-Quneitra Countryside,” Islam Sham YouTube page, February 19, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EdVpiHdScsw.

3. “Harakat Ahrar al-Sham- Liberates the Mechanized Company in the Sweisa District in the al-Quneitra Countryside,” Ahrar News YouTube page, January 31, 2014, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ueZTUxDZjDQ.

4. “Beginning Battles in the Countryside of al-Quneitra to Open the Road to the Besieged City of Nawa,” Jabhat al-Nusra’s declaration posted on Moslim.org forum, February 26, 2014,  http://www.moslm.org/vb/showthread.php?528657-%D8%AC%D8%A8%D9%87%D8%A9-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%86%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A9-%E2%80%93-%D8%A7%D9%86%D8%B7%D9%84%D8%A7%D9%82-%D9%85%D8%B9%D8%A7%D8%B1%D9%83-%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%81-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%82%D9%86%D9%8A%D8%B7%D8%B1%D8%A9-%D9%84%D9%81%D8%AA%D8%AD-%D8%A7%D9%84%D8%B7%D8%B1%D9%8A%D9%82-%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AF%D9%8A%D9%86%D8%A9-%D9%86%D9%88%D9%89-%D8%A7%D9%84%D9%85%D8%AD%D8%A7%D8%B5%D8%B1%D8%A9.

5. See the Alwiya al-Furqan YouTube page for frequently updated video footage of the Fajr Tawhid 2 Battle: http://www.youtube.com/channel/UCdiidS1jUkBqPFvwUPvUhFA/videos?sort=dd&view=0&shelf_id=1.