U.S.-backed rebels push forward in southern Syria
BEIRUT — Syrian rebels backed by the United States are making their biggest gains yet south of the capital Damascus, capturing a string of towns from government forces and aiming to carve out a swath of territory leading to the doorstep of President Bashar Assad’s seat of power.
The advances appear to be a rare visible success story from efforts by America and its allies to train and arm moderate rebel fighters.
The rebel forces are believed to include fighters who graduated from a nearly 2-year-old CIA training program based in Syria’s southern neighbor Jordan. The group known as the Friends of Syria, including Jordan, France the United States and Saudi Arabia, are backing the rebels with money and weapons, said Gen. Ibrahim Jbawi, spokesman for the Free Syrian Army’s southern front.
The gains are a contrast to northern Syria, where U.S.-backed rebels are collapsing in the face of an assault by Islamic terrorists. Notably, in the south, the rebels are working together with al-Qaida’s Syria branch, whose battle-hardened militants have helped them gain the momentum against government forces.
“The goal is to reach the capital … because there is no way to bring down the regime without reaching Damascus,” said Ahmad al-Masalmeh, an opposition activist in Daraa.
But few are under the illusion that the offensive in the south can loosen Assad’s grip on power in the near future. The Syrian leader has benefited from the U.S.-led coalition’s war against the Islamic State, which has had the side effect of freeing up Assad’s forces to focus on more moderate rebels elsewhere in the country. Government forces have seized several key areas around the capital.