The American-led coalition and US-backed Syrian rebels built a new outpost deep in the Syrian desert Sunday, as a rebel spokesman tells Syria Direct that the “time has come” to advance on the Islamic State in the eastern province of Deir e-Zor.
The newly constructed a-Zakaf outpost is located in the Syrian Badia—the stretch of desert in southern Syria spanning Homs and Deir e-Zor provinces—120km away from Islamic State-held al-Bukamal city along the Euphrates River.
The outpost lies at a “gateway to Deir e-Zor, Homs and Palmyra,” al-Baraa Faris, spokesman for US-backed rebel faction Maghawir a-Thawra (MAT), tells Syria Direct’s Walid a-Nofal.
The a-Zakaf outpost earlier this week. Photo courtesy of Maghawir a-Thawra.
The coalition and US-backed rebel factions have been fighting Islamic State (IS) fighters in the Badia for months, searching for an “entry point” into IS-held Deir e-Zor province, Syria Direct reported in May.
Prior to the construction of Sunday’s outpost, coalition forces have been operating out of an international military base at a-Tanf near the border crossing between Iraq and Syria. The a-Zakaf outpost, 70km from a-Tanf, is the first of several that are planned along the route to al-Bukamal, says Faris.
The a-Zakaf outpost is a “well-fortified position,” Faris tells Syria Direct.
Q: News about an international military base in a-Zakaf broke on Sunday. Who controls the base, and what is its purpose?
A-Zakaf isn’t an international base, it is a forward outpost for Maghawir a-Thawra (MAT) and a training camp located in the a-Zakaf region of the Syrian Badia.
It’s a point in the desert far from civilians, where members of the Free Syrian Army meet for training freely. The outpost also exists to protect refugee camps along the border, like a-Rukban camp [in the no-man’s land along the Jordanian border].
The a-Zakaf region is 70km northeast of a-Tanf, and 120km west of al-Bukamal. It’s in a well-fortified position, and there are enough armed forces there to repel any attacks.
MAT will build one or two more bases near al-Bukamal. If the Islamic State loses Deir e-Zor, the Badia must be under our control so we can prevent its fighters from fleeing there and entrenching themselves once again.
Q: Which forces are at the base, and what is their role? Why did they choose to build a base now?
The location was chosen by the Free Syrian Army, not the international coalition. It is situated at a gateway to Deir e-Zor, Homs and Palmyra. It also lies between a-Sweida and Deir e-Zor, as well as between al-Qalamoun and Outer Damascus.
The base houses fighters from MAT and soldiers of different coalition nationalities.
The coalition only provides logistic support and training, and the base belongs to MAT. As for the coalition soldiers in the base, they will remain there only temporarily. After their mission is completed, they will return to a-Tanf.
The time has come to advance towards al-Bukamal and Deir e-Zor. That’s why we decided to build the base now.
Q: What does this new base, as well as the international base at a-Tanf, mean for rebels in the area?
We saw what happened last time the regime tried to advance in the area—one of their patrols was targeted and completely destroyed.
Q: What are the lines these bases have drawn for the regime and its allies in the surrounding area? Explain these outposts and how far they are from the base.
All of these [pro-regime] militias were warned to distance themselves 70km from a-Zakaf, far from the area that the FSA has set up bases in, and far from our path to Deir e-Zor.
There is no coordination between us and the Shiite militias that fight in the region—they are our enemy.
Right now, our war is with the Islamic State’s terror. If these militias, Hezbollah or Russian forces [interfere with our advance], we’ll fight back and drive them from our path.
We’ve said numerous times that they must distance themselves from a-Tanf.
Anything less than [total compliance] with these points and we will strike them.