US-backed rebels withdraw from eastern desert with no clear mission ahead

AMMAN: US-backed rebel militias in Syria’s remote, southeastern desert region have withdrawn from their positions and are retreating to an American military zone along the Syrian-Iraqi border as regime forces capture the emptied territory, spokesmen from three of the militias told Syria Direct on Thursday.

The Syrian regime today controls an estimated “13,000 square kilometers” of formerly rebel-held Badia stretching along the Syrian-Jordanian border from southern Suwayda to Outer Damascus provinces, the pro-regime news outlet War Media Center reported in an online post. By Wednesday, regime forces “ended the presence of terrorists” in the Badia, the Center reported.  

The capture of new desert territory appears to illustrate a major shift of military control in Syria’s east that is months in the making, despite rebel assertions that they withdrew in order to protect the nearby Rukban displacement camp located within the American-run military zone.

Fighters from the US-supported Free Syrian Army affiliates Usud a-Sharqia and Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo Brigade have been withdrawing from their positions in the eastern desert region known as the Badia “over the past six weeks,” a commander from one of the two militias told Syria Direct, though the “final withdrawal began around one week ago, ending Wednesday.” The commander spoke on condition of anonymity, saying he was not authorized to speak to the media. They were part of the American-led battle to drive the Islamic State out of Syria’s eastern desert.

Syrian regime soldiers in the southern Badia on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

The two militias are now reportedly located in the southeastern corner of the Syrian Badia inside a US-run “deconfliction zone,” a 55-kilometer radius serving as a base for the American-led coalition fighting the Islamic State. The zone in part straddles the Syrian-Iraqi border, and was established following an agreement between the US and Russia in 2015 to prevent territorial intrusions between the two rival sides.

A third US-backed militia, the FSA’s Maghawir a-Thawra (MaT), is now in the boundaries of the deconfliction zone, Mohammad Jarrah, a spokesman from the group, told Syria Direct from there. Both the zone and the military base within it are overseen by the US-led anti-Islamic State coalition. Syria Direct reached out to US CENTCOM multiple times on Thursday, but received no comment.

Meanwhile, Syrian regime and allied forces on the ground in the Badia swept northeast across the remote desert on Wednesday, seizing territory and military outposts recently abandoned by the Ahmad Abdo and Usud a-Sharqia brigades, the War Media Center reported. Videos shared online by state news outlet SANA purportedly show regime forces taking control of the positions across the southern Badia on Wednesday.

Syrian regime forces at a former Usud a-Sharqia military outpost in the Badia on Wednesday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Pro-regime forces have been advancing along Syria’s southern border with Jordan for months. The military advances peaked last month as pro-regime militias encroached on the Hadalat displacement camp, once home to an estimated 5,000 displaced residents from eastern Syria. Approaching regime forces prompted residents to empty the camp and head an estimated 100 kilometers northeast to the larger, yet poorly supplied, Rukban camp, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Once tasked with fighting the Islamic State, the next mission of the withdrawn militias remains unclear other than to “protect the refugees” still housed in Rukban, MaT spokesman Jarrah told Syria Direct. The camp contains roughly 60,000 people displaced from areas of eastern Syria once held by the Islamic State.

Otherwise, the factions have “no new mission” outlined for the near future, two other rebel spokesmen told Syria Direct.

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.