The Free Syrian Army's Southern Front has finally launched a long-anticipated offensive in southern Syria following months of preparation. The rebel forces swiftly overran the loyalist 52nd Mechanized Brigade on June 9 and are now headed for al Th'alah air base in Sweida province. The success of this offensive highlights the deteriorating position of President Bashar al Assad's forces. It also brings Syria's minority Druze population closer to the center of the conflict.
The government in Damascus was broadly aware of an impending assault on their southern positions and had been preparing defenses for months. The fact that the 52nd Mechanized Brigade collapsed quickly despite advanced planning indicates the degree to which the Syrian military has been weakened. The rebels seized considerable equipment and weaponry from the base, including at least seven BMP-1 infantry fighting vehicles and several T-72 tanks, as well as weapons and munitions. This new materiel will enable continued rebel attacks against the al Assad government. Loyalist forces will find themselves in an increasingly difficult position as they seek to defend against multiple rebel offensives in the north and south in addition to Islamic State attacks from the east, across the desert.
The Free Syrian Army's Southern Front is growing in power as it seizes more territory in Daraa, Quneitra and now Sweida. An examination of combat footage reveals that Southern Front troops are benefiting from continued Saudi, Jordanian and U.S. support. Southern Front forces are increasingly well-trained, with more of them wearing standardized uniforms and combat helmets. Their weapons capabilities have also been enhanced by donated TOW anti-tank guided missiles and APILAS anti-tank weapons.
As the Southern Front advances west into Sweida province, the minority Druze population in the region is becoming increasingly anxious. The Druze have attempted to stay out of the Syrian conflict as much as possible. Although young Druze men are deployed with the Syrian military, they have not committed to the same extent as other minorities. Instead, the Druze have repeatedly blocked conscription efforts by Damascus and even forced the government to release recently drafted Druze men.
But with the Islamic State encroaching on Sweida from the east and spillover battles between rebels and loyalist forces taking place across the province, the Druze community realizes that maintaining neutrality will be difficult. The Druze asked the al Assad government to provide weapons to defend themselves. In response, the government requested that the Druze provide more manpower for the military. Damascus recently expressed its frustration with the Druze by pulling heavy weaponry out of the province, to be reallocated elsewhere.
It is likely that the Druze will seek an accommodation with the Free Syrian Army in an attempt to dissuade the rebels from advancing on the city of Sweida. In return, the Druze will not directly assist Damascus in battles against the Free Syria Army. The Southern Front will likely honor such an agreement given outside pressure from their foreign backers and a desire to not combine Druze strength with that of loyalist forces. The Druze understand, however, that they will not be able to reach such an agreement with the Islamic State.
If the Druze fail to receive the necessary weaponry from al Assad, it is entirely likely that they will turn to outside powers, perhaps Jordan, for much-needed weapons and equipment. Already, the chairman of Lebanon's Druze Progressive Socialist Party, Walid Jumblatt, appears to be looking elsewhere to secure protection for Druze in Sweida province. Stratfor sources indicate that Jumblatt sent Lebanese Health Minister Wael Abou Faour to Turkey and that Jumblatt himself traveled to Amman to speak with Jordan's King Abdullah II.