Written by Michael Uhler exclusively for SouthFront; Edited by Desislava Tzoneva
Unlike the clear knowledge surrounding American–YPG relations of involvement, much less is known about US ties to the groups operating in the deserts of southern Syria. Two important groups operating in this area are the ‘Forces of the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo’ (Arabic: قوات الشهيد احمد العبده) and the ‘New Syrian Army’ (NSyA) (Arabic: جيش سوريا الجديد). Although both of the aforementioned groups receive support from the US, the level of involvement differs. The partnership between America and the NSyA can be regarded as tighter than that of the YPG. Even though the NSyA could arguably be one of the smallest groups comprised under the so-called ‘FSA’, the level of training, coordination and equipment surpasses most other groups. Rumors have circulated indicating the possibility of Jordanian special forces within its contingent. (The NSyA has coordinated with the Iraqi government on multiple occasions surrounding the Syrian–Iraqi border). King Abdullah II of Jordan revealed earlier this year that Jordanian special forces were indeed participating with rebels in this area.
The sudden appearance of the NSyA occurred on November 15th, 2015. The NSyA launched its first operation on al-Tanf, which resulted in an attack on ammunition storehouses as well as on a bomb factory. Not much more information other than this video has been released about this raid. Bolstered by Jordan and America, the degree of cooperation can be seen in the group’s operational security (OPSEC). Quite different from the groups which fall under the umbrella of the FSA, the NSyA appears to be very professional and keen on keeping any sort of identification to a minimum. Few videos from fighters have been published online and in almost all picture or video publications, the vehicles’ license plates, the soldier’s faces and the background (to hinder geo-location) are blurred to some extent.
Just like in the case of the US’s involvement in YPG/SDF affairs, by providing close air support they also provide the same support for the NSyA, which indicates a very close relationship; one which is not the same as the support for the FSA operating in northern Aleppo. Colonel Steve Warren in March 2016 said that there “was a HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) strike out of northern Jordan … to back up an opposition group that seized ground from ISIS just across the border” – shedding some light on the involvement between these groups.
On March the 4th of 2016, the NSyA together with Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Forces, launched a campaign with the main target being the Tanf border crossing, which they briefly took and lost two days later. On 12 March 2016, the NSyA re-took the border crossing and released a video claiming to show its troops at the al-Tanf border crossing (statement about the capture). The crossing is roughly 240 km (or 150 miles) from Palmyra (Tadmur).
Here is a map showing the Syrian-Jordanian border during 15 March 2016.
On the 7th of May 2016, ISIS successfully managed to detonate a SVBIED within the camp of the NSyA in Tanf. Lack of anti-tank weapons seemed to be the issue at hand as NSyA fighters “saw the suicide bomber hurtling through the desert toward them when the vehicle was two miles away … but the bullets, mortar rounds and rocket-propelled grenades bounced harmlessly off the vehicle.” The original group of 50, which was trained by the US military, had increased in number since its inception. However, it was smaller than expected. Furthermore, recruitment was hindered when applicants were required to sign a document pledging to only fight ISIS and not governmental forces of Syria.
Disdain spread among the remaining members of the NSyA when they suffered another blow in their attempt to seize al-Bukamal. However, the spokesman for the NSyA, Muzahim al-Salloum, stated that their mission had been accomplished and was not designed to capture it. On the 28th of June 2016, the NSyA fighting together with the Forces of the Martyr Ahmad al-Abdo, assaulted al-Bukamal held by ISIS. Although they had the backing of the US-led coalition, tribal forces from across the border in neighboring Iraq, as well as sleeper cells in the area, the resulting assault was a failure. The offensive began with three coalition helicopters landing troops four kilometres west of al-Bukamal (which was announced online) when the NSyA on the way to al-Bukamal from al-Tanf, captured the village of al-Sukkariya (north of al-Bukamal), the Ayshat al-Khayri hospital (northern al-Bukamal), the Hamdan military airfield (defunct) five kilometers north-west of al-Bukamal, as well as some checkpoints in the desert. Members belonging to the Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Forces released a video claiming to show that their troops were involved with the NSyA in this offensive. However, during the assault on Hamdan, and perhaps in anticipation, ISIS had dug trenches in the south-western part of town as well as planted numerous mines and snipers. As stated previously, reports indicated that the coalition warplanes were diverted during the assault to target a fleeing convoy from Fallujah, which undoubtedly impacted on the effectiveness of the offensive. However, some members of the NSyA are reluctant to place all the blame on the lack of air cover. This offensive was supposed to coincide with another assault across the border from the Iraqi Federal Police on the town of Al-Qa’im. Unfortunately, NSyA-leaning tribesmen in Iraq acted “both precipitously and insufficiently in their role … which … alerted ISIS to the mission.” Thereafter, the terrorist organisation was able to call upon reinforcements from the Iraqi side of the border of al-Qaim. During an assault during the offensive, a rebel source claimed that “Islamic State fighters had encircled the rebels in a surprise ambush.” The next day, coalition airplanes flew and took part in Fallujah, which resulted in a successful ISIS forces counter-attack, in which they recaptured the airbase and equipment and pushed the NSyA to the outskirts of the desert where the US-backed group finally fully-retreated to its base at Tanf 200 miles away. ISIS reported to have killed more than 40 NSyA members, capturing 15, as well as capturing vehicles and weapons, flaunting some of their finds., Later, reports claimed that US fighter jets which were covering the NSyA’s offensive against al-Bukamal, left to participate in striking an ISIS convoy fleeing the loss of Fallujah. When asked what happened after the loss of the NSyA, Colonel Chris Garver, a US military spokesman said that ”prioritisation was given to one target over another.”
Late last week, reports and pictures indicated that there was fighting between the NSyA and ISIS in the desert south of al-Bukamal.
In this video, obtained from a deceased NSyA solider during the failed offensive in al-Bukamal by ISIS, you can see the NSyA’s preparations and training and a quick glimpse of some combat footage. (This video has edited out eight minutes of propaganda and beheadings).
The future of this ‘moderate’ US-backed group seems to be in jeopardy.