U.S.-backed Arab militias began a new offensive against the Islamic State in eastern Syria this week, a bid to flush the extremists out of a key transit zone for fighters, weapons and oil, according to defected military officers leading the Arab group.
The attack on Tanaf, near the border town of Abu Kamal, was the latest sign that the U.S.-led international coalition has decided to focus on the oil-rich Syrian-Iraqi border area, where Arab tribes are highly motivated to fight to regain the cities and towns they lost to the Islamic State last year.
Last week, Kurdish peshmerga of the Kurdistan Regional Government in northern Iraq ousted the Islamic State from Sinjar, even as a force led by Syrian Kurds captured al Hawl, an oil-producing town in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. Both ground offensives were heavily backed by U.S. airstrikes.
The Arab offensive against Tanaf, which began Monday, is led by a new umbrella group that calls itself the New Syrian Army, which operates as part of the Authenticity and Development Front, a moderate Islamist grouping that claims 2,200 fighters operating in different parts of Syria. The offensive appears to involve no Kurdish forces.
A sheikh from the conservative Salafist strain of Islam, Khaled al Hammad, who resides in Saudi Arabia, leads the front.
Subunits of the front have won U.S. backing, arms and training, because they effectively fit the U.S. restrictions that their first aim must be to fight the Islamic State and not the government of President Bashar Assad.
“We in eastern Syria will liberate our territory from the regime,” said a major in the New Syrian Army, who spoke with McClatchy in a telephone interview. “But there is no regime in eastern Syria.”
The officer, a defector from the Syrian army, said the force has military camps inside Syria but had received its training from the Friends of Syria, an international grouping that provides covert aid. He said he was under instructions to speak anonymously.
He declined to confirm a statement from a second military officer that U.S. helicopters had provided air support for the offensive. “If a target needs to be dealt with, we will deal with it,” he said. But he refused to say if the force could actually call in U.S. airstrikes, as Kurdish forces have been able to do for much of this year.
Moderate rebel advances in the desert region are all tentative, owing in most instances to the withdrawal of the Islamic State forces, not their defeat. An example is al Hawl, which fell Friday to the combined force of the Kurdish YPG militia and the Arab Sanadid militia.
Iraqis in the Islamic State militia began retreating from al Hawl over the weekend to the nearby oil-producing town of Ash Shadaddi, and there are strong signs that the Islamic State also will retreat from there, to the town of al Mayadeen. But Syrians from al Hawl and Ash Shadaddi who joined the Islamic State have demanded that the Islamic State make a stand, and the Islamic State’s emir in Hasaka, an Iraqi, has promised a counteroffensive, Ash Shadaddi residents reported.
Zakaria is a McClatchy special correspondent. Roy Gutman @roygutmanmcc