US-backed forces in southeastern Syria downsize, take on smaller role

AMMAN: A few dozen fighters are all that remain of a US-backed rebel faction fighting the Islamic State in a remote stretch of Syria’s southeastern desert, sources on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday, the latest development in what appears to be a downsizing of coalition operations there.

Between 40 and 60 fighters remain with the Maghawir a-Thawra (MaT) faction after at least 180 others were relieved from duty over the weekend, a source with the group who requested anonymity told Syria Direct on Monday.

A US Central Command (CENTCOM) spokesperson confirmed in an email to Syria Direct on Monday that 180 fighters were let go after they had “completed their military service.”

MaT removed the fighters from service as a result of their “weak performance” while on duty, MaT spokesman Muhammad Jarrah told Syria Direct on Monday night. He added that the release was an internal decision made by the faction’s leadership.

The former rebel fighters are “transitioning back to civilian life, where they can be part of the reconstruction of Syrian infrastructure and economy,”  said the unnamed CENTCOM spokesperson.

Coalition-supported rebels in the Badia last spring. Photo courtesy of Hammurabi’s Justice News.

MaT’s remaining fighters are now guarding a US-led military outpost near the a-Tanf border crossing between Syria and Iraq, two rebel sources in the Syrian Badia—the largely unpopulated stretch of desert spanning much of the country’s far east—told Syria Direct on Monday.

From a-Tanf, the US-led coalition trains and supports vetted rebel fighters from MaT and around a half dozen other factions to launch military operations against the Islamic State (IS). The US and other western nations maintain a limited on-the-ground presence composed primarily of military advisors.

As recently as this past May, US-backed forces regularly clashed with IS fighters and were looking for an “entry point” into then-IS-held al-Bukamal city some 200 kilometers east of a-Tanf base, Syria Direct reported at the time.

But today US-backed rebels in the Badia are largely cut off from the fight with IS. Pro-regime forces control the desert just east of a-Tanf along the Iraqi border, and the Syrian government announced its control over al-Bukamal on Sunday.

Although MaT and other coalition affiliates control a 55 square kilometer zone around a-Tanf, their operations are limited to patrolling for IS fighters and protecting civilians at the Rukban and Hadalat displacement camps along the Jordanian-Syrian border, one member of MaT’s leadership told Syria Direct.

The reduction in the number of MaT fighters comes after MaT’s “military operations against the Islamic State ended,” the MaT source said.

“It can be said that American operations in the Badia have been frozen,” the source told Syria Direct.

Another member of a US-backed faction currently active in the Badia likened the recent release of MaT fighters to the withdrawal of two coalition-supported rebel factions from battles with the regime in October.

“We were forced to retreat into the [a-Tanf] area,” the source, who requested anonymity, told Syria Direct. “Our part [in Badia operations] declined, and our operations were put on ice,” he added.

MaT spokesman Jarrah insists his faction’s ranks are “strong and full,” and told Syria Direct that the organization let the 180 fighters go for “laziness” and failing to meet the group’s operational standards.

“We restructured, and whoever didn’t fit in with that was let go,” Jarrah said. Each departing fighter was awarded $2,000 in severance pay, he added.

Jarrah denied that coalition operations in the Badia were on the decline.

“We’re not a toy in the hands of the coalition—they need us,” he said. “We haven’t been disarmed, and if we were it would be a crime.”

 

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.