New Syrian Army: A US disaster and probably not the last

Sunday 24/07/2016

Military officials in Moscow and Damascus are getting a good laugh out of a new US-backed Syrian military group called the New Syrian Army. It was born and killed on the day of its launch in June — slaughtered at the hands of the Islamic State (ISIS) in Al-Bukamal, a strategic town in eastern Syria near the Iraqi border and held by ISIS since 2014.

The operation went bizarrely wrong, prompting American mili­tary officials to admit the fact that they need to do business with Moscow if they want any tangible victories in Syria.

The flawed operation aimed at retaking Al-Bukamal from ISIS, with strong US air cover, just as the Russians and their Syrian proxies did with Palmyra in March. However, US-trained Syrian troops, airlifted into the Syrian battlefield from Jordan, walked straight into an ISIS ambush.

Out of 200 men, 15 were captured and 40 were killed. The remaining fighters abandoned their weapons and fled into the Syrian desert. This was a tough reality check for President Barack Obama’s administra­tion.

The so-called New Syrian Army has been on the Central Intelli­gence Agency’s payroll since October 2015. After nine months of training at US camps in Jordan, it was a disaster in battle, raising questions about what would happen to other Syrian troops in similar programmes and deployed in northern Syria.

In what remains of his tenure, Obama is trying to take control of the Syrian-Jordanian-Iraqi Triangle, setting up a bridge for military cooperation between Kurdish troops in north-eastern Syria and Arab tribes in the south-east.

The United States mistakenly believed that residents of Al-Bukamal would immediately take up arms with the New Syrian Army, championing an elusive democracy over their interpreta­tion of Islam. The Americans forgot how brainwashed many of these fighters had become and the fact that ISIS rewards its supporters handsomely while punishing enemies by slitting their throats and cutting off their heads.

The people of Al-Bukamal feared the jihadists’ wrath and refused to take up arms with the new army, uncertain, of course, about how far the United States was going to go in supporting them. The fact that the new US-backed militia was packed with Sunni fighters from promi­nent Syrian tribes mattered little to the residents of Al-Bukamal, despite the bonds of kinship between them and the invading troops.

They looked the other way, either standing behind ISIS or fearing its wrath, reminding the world, perhaps, that Al-Bukamal was the main incubator of jihadi militias during the battles of Anbar in Iraq shortly after the US invasion of 2003.

Reportedly more than 50% of Al-Bukamal’s 200,000 residents refused to take up arms with the US-backed force. Nor did Iraqi refugees living there who had recently fled the mayhem in Falluja or the Syrians from Deir ez-Zor who have been travelling back and forth between ISIS-held parts of their city and Al-Buka­mal.

Another reason why the US operation failed was that the Russian Army was not consulted. Since entering the Syrian War in September 2015, the Russians have worked at gathering intelligence, networking with Syrian tribes and collecting excellent satellite imagery.

All of these were presented to the Syrian Army and played a major role in its successes in western and central Syria. The Americans wanted to score a similar victory in Raqqa but were beaten to the scene by the Russians.

They then tried and failed in Al-Bukamal. Most the Syrian proxies they have armed since 2014 have either defected to ISIS or been demolished on the battlefield by al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s Syrian wing. Clearly, something had to be done differently.

It was no surprise then that shortly after Al-Bukamal, the Obama administration presented the Russians with a proposal for military cooperation, more extensive than anything dis­cussed over the past five years.

It calls for joint headquarters, extensive battlefield surveillance and joint operations.

According to the Washington Post, the proposal “would dramatically shift the United States’ Syria Policy” and serve as a “boon for the Assad regime, which could see the forces it is fighting dramatically weakened”.

Under the Obama proposal, not only does the Syrian Army get huge credit for being a partner in the war on terror, but a clause exists that allows the Russians to come to its aid if attacked by al-Nusra.

When asked to outline his counterterrorism strategy, US Secretary of State John Kerry identified targets, including Ahrar al-Sham and Jaysh al-Islam, two main players in Syria that Moscow was adamant on eradi­cating.

The first is Turkish-backed and operates in northern Syria while Jaysh al-Islam is Saudi-funded and based in the al-Ghouta orchards ringing Damascus. Clearly from Kerry’s statement, topped by the Al-Bukamal fiasco, the United States is surrendering fully to Moscow’s mapping of the Syria war and its vision of how it to be handled — and resolved.