Syria rebels in south emerge as West's last hope as moderates crushed elsewhere

Syria rebels in south emerge as West's last hope as moderates crushed elsewhere
Rebel fighters carry their weapons as they move near the frontline during clashes against forces of Syria's President Bashar al-Assad in the Handarat area, north of Aleppo November 11, 2014.

BEIRUT - With moderate rebels facing defeat by al Qaeda in Syria's north, groups holding a corner of the south are seeking a higher profile and more help, as the last Western-backed forces holding out against both President Bashar al-Assad and the jihadists.

The southern rebels, described by Western officials as the best organised of the mainstream opposition, say they are the last hope for a revolution hijacked by jihadists. In recent days they have laid out a transition plan for a Syria without Assad, taking on a political role that in the past they left to others.

Washington says backing "moderate" rebels is central to its new strategy to defeat the jihadists without helping Assad, put in place since the United States began bombing Sunni Islamist fighters from Islamic State in Syria in September.

But since the US bombing began, many Western-backed rebel groups have been hammered by both the government and jihadists. Last week, al Qaeda's Syria branch, the Nusra Front, routed pro-Western rebels in one of their final strongholds in the north.

Assad's forces control Damascus, the Mediterranean coast and much of the area in between. Islamic State, an al Qaeda offshoot, controls the east, while Nusra controls much of the northwest and is expanding at the expense of moderates.

The southern provinces near the Jordanian border are an exception, where rebels calling themselves the "Southern Front" still control territory and have managed to resist Assad while avoiding direct clashes with the Nusra Front.

Last week, 15 groups in the Southern Front drew up a political programme, a step which separates them from the exile-led opposition widely seen across Syria as a failure.

As the rare non-jihadist movement which still controls territory, they hope to receive more aid from the West to avoid suffering the same fate as Western allies who have been crushed by jihadists and government forces elsewhere.

NOW IS THE TIME

In the past, rebels on the ground have mainly steered clear of politics, a subject left to umbrella groups like the largely exile-based National Coalition, which meets in Turkey. But leaders of the Southern Front say they have decided to take political issues into their own hands.

"We did not get involved in these matters before. We left them to others. But now it is time. We can no longer risk squandering Syria," defected army officer Abu Osama al-Jolani, 37, southern commander of the Syria Revolutionaries' Front, told Reuters in an interview over the Internet.

Their plan, still unpublished but disclosed to Reuters, calls for turning the Southern Front rebels into a civilian security force. National institutions including the military would be safeguarded, and a technocratic interim authority would be set up to be followed by elections.

The plan emphasises protection for all Syrians regardless of religious, cultural or ethnic affiliations - language apparently aimed at reassuring Assad's Alawite sect and Christians who fear the alternative to him is a radical Islamist government.

It could be in line with thinking in Washington, where CNN reported Obama wants a policy review, realising Islamic State may not be defeated without a transition and Assad's removal.

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