US-led offensive in Syrian desert searches for ‘entry point’ into Islamic State’s Deir e-Zor province

AMMAN: US-backed Syrian rebels are fighting with American ground forces against the Islamic State in Syria’s eastern desert, rebel commanders told Syria Direct, aiming to capture strategic points in Deir e-Zor province and “outmaneuver” pro-regime militias.

US-trained and funded rebels with the Free Syrian Army faction Maghawir a-Thawra (MAT) battled Islamic State (IS) forces on Wednesday along the border dividing Homs and Deir e-Zor provinces. Wednesday's battles are the latest in the US-led coalition’s bid to take control of a strategic population center along the Iraqi border.

United States-led coalition ground forces are fighting alongside MAT and providing air support, rebel commanders told Syria Direct.

Syria Direct interviewed five rebels involved with US-led military operations in eastern Syria this week. Two MAT members agreed to be identified, while three other rebel sources requested their names not be published for security reasons.

The US-led offensive is looking for an “entry point” into Deir e-Zor, a rebel source close to the operation told Syria Direct. The goal is to penetrate IS territory and begin isolating its forces in the eastern region, the source said.

In a video posted online Sunday, US forces are seen clashing with the IS in empty desert, firing machine-gun rounds into the distance as a member of MAT records it.

Rebels with Maghawir a-Thawra board a pick up truck in the Syrian Badia in January. Photo courtesy of Maghawir a-Thawra.  

Rebels told Syria Direct earlier this week that the video clip was filmed in al-Hamima—an area located at the provincial border of Homs and Deir e-Zor provinces—on Sunday.

The video shows US Special Forces targeting Islamic State fighters laying landmines along the road to al-Bukamel, an IS-held city at the southern base of the Euphrates River at the Iraqi border.

The operation killed several IS fighters, and destroyed the freshly laid mines on the road to al-Bukamel, said a MAT field commander who identified himself as Abu Howsha.

The goal of the US-backed Syrian rebels in the Syrian Badia—the largely unpopulated stretch of desert spanning much of the far east of the country—is to push 80km west “to cut off IS and liberate al-Bukamel from their terror,” said commander Abu Howsha.

The video—filmed with the explicit agreement of the US-led international coalition, rebels say—“sends a message” to pro-regime forces in the area, dissuading them from advancing in the area for fear of clashing with US forces directly, an anonymous source within MAT told Syria Direct.

According to one MAT rebel, the coalition has stressed its desire to avoid clashes with Iranian, Russian and other pro-regime forces in the Syrian Badia.

“The coalition has made it clear that fighting Iranians and the regime is not their mission,” the MAT source said.

“They must remain neutral in our battles with the regime—they must only fight the Islamic State.”

US outpost at a-Tanf

American military forces in the Badia number around 100 soldiers supported by armored vehicles and based out of a small military outpost near the a-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq, said field commander Abu Howsha.

In early April, IS forces launched a major attack on the outpost in a-Tanf, killing several rebel fighters before ultimately retreating with heavy losses. No American or coalition personnel were killed in the attack, a spokesman from the Pentagon told reporters on April 10.

Today, the border crossing is controlled by US-backed Syrian rebels on one side and the Iraqi government on the other. About 230km of desert separate the outpost at a-Tanf from IS-held al-Bukamel.

From al-Bukamel, the US-backed Syrian rebels in the Badia intend to advance north along the Euphrates river towards the provincial capital of Deir e-Zor, one of the MAT sources told Syria Direct. IS controls the majority of the capital city while the Syrian regime retains control of two encircled districts and a nearby military airport. 

 A fleet of vehicles belonging to Maghawir a-Thawra mobilize in the Syrian Badia in January. Photo courtesy of Maghawir a-Thawra.

While opposition forces and their American allies set their sights on al-Bukamel, the Syrian army and pro-regime militias continue to clash with IS fighters north of the Badia in the expanse of desert surrounding regime-held Palmyra.

The regime and its allies have clashed with US-backed rebels multiple times in recent weeks. On May 12, the regime captured the Zaza Checkpoint—just 100km north of a-Tanf—after hours of intense clashes with MAT and other US-backed rebel forces.

Regime ambitions to retake parts of the Syrian Badia have alarmed some rebel commanders.

“Our goals are clear,” a MAT commander who requested anonymity told Syria Direct earlier this week. “We want to outmaneuver [pro-regime] militias maliciously advancing towards Deir e-Zor.”

‘Butting heads’

IS is steadily losing territory along several front lines in Syria and Iraq. About 125km north of Deir e-Zor, the US-backed Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are advancing towards Raqqa, IS's de facto Syrian capital. The SDF has captured strategic positions along the highway linking Raqqa with Deir e-Zor, effectively cutting off movement between IS's two most crucial strongholds in the country.

Earlier this week, several pro-regime media outlets alleged that the Syrian government was massing for a major offensive to retake parts of the Syrian Badia currently held by US-backed rebel militias.

 Maghwair a-Thawra fighters stand and talk in the Syrian Badia. Photo courtesy of Maghawir a-Thawra.

The explicit goal of the regime, pro-regime Al-Masdar News reported on Monday, is to regain control of the a-Tanf crossing and reopen the highway between Baghdad and Damascus. 

“Since we announced the presence of US forces on the ground in the Badia, the regime has halted its operations,” a MAT spokesman named Mazaham told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

An FSA commander close to the US-led operation in the Badia told Syria Direct this week that the coalition is coordinating with the SDF to blockade Deir e-Zor, and to prevent the regime from advancing towards the city. 

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.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.