A satellite cellphone rings for rebel commander Bashar al-Zawi, at home with his family in the Jordanian city of Irbid. It’s a rare domestic break for this wealthy businessman turned rebel commander. But he is anxious to get back to his battalion of 5,000 fighters in southern Syria.
They are taking part in a rebel offensive that is squeezing the Syrian army around the city of Dera’a. Military analysts say the fight is one of the most strategically important battles in Syria’s civil war, because Dera’a, close to Damascus, is President Bashar Assad’s stronghold in the southwest.
What are Zawi’s aims when he returns to Dera’a later that night? “Escalation. I’m a leader of a brigade — so my job is not to preach peace,” he says with a laugh.
Syrian opposition leaders were deeply disappointed by President Obama’s decision to call off threatened military strikes in favor of diplomacy after the Syrian government allegedly used chemical weapons against its own people.
And on the ground in southern Syria, rebel commanders say U.S. promises of lethal aid appear to be on hold as Washington pursues a diplomatic track.
But Zawi shrugs off disappointment with the most recent U.S. policy shift. He is focused on the fight for Dera’a, where, he says, months of quiet preparation have paid off.
Rebel sources say earlier this year Saudi Arabia stepped up arms shipments through Jordan; the CIA vetted the rebel groups that received the arms to make sure none went to Islamist extremists. Zawi says there are no extremists in the south.
“There is a good command between the groups, and hopefully, we will be successful, but there is a shortage of ammunition,” he says.
And that’s where Zawi and other commanders see a link between the U.S. turn to diplomacy and waning U.S. support for rebels on the ground. The pipeline of weapons, ammunition and nonlethal aid pledged by the U.S. has slowed in recent weeks, just as rebels were inching closer to regime-controlled Dera’a. America’s focus, says Zawi, has shifted to destroying chemical weapons, while the rebels insist on destroying the regime.
“We were hoping for an intervention that didn’t happen,” he says. “Everyone is only talking about chemical weapons now.”
Zawi heads the Yarmouk brigade, which is part of the Supreme Military Council. Washington and the Saudis back the council, which is considered the moderate wing of the rebel movement and is strong in the south.
But the capture of the city of Dera’a has remained out of reach. Some of the Assad regime’s strongest forces are in the Dera’a region, says Abu Ismael, an army general who defected and now heads the Supreme Military Council’s southern command. Ismael, who taught military strategy in a Syrian war college before the revolution, says a U.S. strike could have changed the balance against the regime.
“In the beginning, the regime was afraid. They evacuated most of the military headquarters, and the security branches,” he says. “But after the Russian-U.S. agreement, the regime felt comfortable and started escalating.”
Ismael says there has been another change as well: On some battlefronts, the Assad regime replaced Syrian field commanders with Iranians and Lebanese militants from Hezbollah.
“Iran and Hezbollah has better experience in street wars,” he says.
And while the regime’s allies are stepping up support on the battlefield, Ismael worries that the U.S. is stepping back from the rebels while in search of a diplomatic solution. He says they hear only promises from the Americans to supply and strengthen moderate rebels in the south.
“They’ve been talking about it for a long time,” he says, laughing.
“We developed trust. In the beginning, they were afraid; now there is trust,” he continues. “They know who the moderate are. And who is not.”
The extremists are in the north, says Ismael. He says rebels in the south are focused on Dera’a — and they need all the help they can get.