For the past two years, Washington has focused its attention on northern Syria, where it has attempted to strengthen the Syrian Democratic Forces and rout the so-called Islamic State (also called ISIS). It has paid much less attention to southern Syria. That is a mistake; the United States has an opportunity there to consolidate and expand upon recent rebel gains. A relatively modest assistance program from Washington could help the local factions expel ISIS from its small enclave in the region and gradually dissolve the local al Qaeda affiliate, Jabhat al-Nusra. Building up the military capabilities of the rebel forces and improving their fragile system of governance could ultimately transform them into a credible threat to the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in Damascus.
What’s more, strengthening the rebels’ position in the south may convince the half million Druze in the southwestern city Sweida to turn away from the Assad regime. Many Druze leaders have already called for distancing the ethnic group from Assad, yet most Druze seem reluctant to sever ties with the regime so long as it still holds the upper hand.
Washington has paid little attention to southern Syria. This is a mistake.
That may change, however, if a better armed and more unified rebel coalition emerges in the region. In recent years, the Druze and the rebels have overcome mutual suspicions and agreed not to attack one another, and the rebels are careful to avoid the Druze Mountain.
The United States can help this process along. In 2013, the United States set up a Military Operations Command in Amman, Jordan, to channel weapons and cash to rebels in the south. But Washington’s assistance to those rebels has never reached the level of its support for groups in northern Syria and in the Euphrates Valley.