Why the New Syrian Army failed to Defeat ISIS in al-Bukamal

The New Syrian Army (NSyA), a US-supported armed group focused on fighting the Islamic State, gave a free victory to ISIS in al-Bukamal, a city on the Syrian-Iraqi border. ISIS needed this victory to raise its fighters’ morale, which has been low after the armed group has faced continuous losses in Syria and Iraq. Their most recent defeat is the loss of Falluja in June 2016.

A former Syrian officer who was in the Military Council of the Free Syrian Army (al-Majlis al-Askary le al-Jaish al-Hurr), Mr. Muhannad Talaa, said that defeating ISIS at al-Bukamal was to meant to raise the spirits of the civilians living under ISIS in al-Bukamal and accelerate the collapse of the extremist group, as had happened in Iraq. But this scenario turned into a victory for ISIS—by defeating the US-supported forces, ISIS gained American weapons, which it flaunted online, and raised the its fighters’ spirits. The important question after this battle is, what went wrong?

On June 29, just before the attempt to take al-Bukamal, the spokesman of the NSyA, Muzahim al-Salloum, stated in a phone call with Agence France-Presse that NSyA withdrew to al-Bukamal desert after ending the first phase of the operation where they targeted ISIS checkpoints on al-Bukamal borders. The fact that the goal was to deal a heavy blow to ISIS and not to seize the border crossing   reflects a lack of understanding of the military situation. Al-Bukamal desert constitutes more than eighty percent of the surrounding area, and advances and retreats in desert territory are common because the territory is hard to defend and not strategic. As long as ISIS can keep supply lines open, whether or not it has fighters in the al-Bukamal desert does not affect the terrorist organization’s control of the city.

ISIS claims to have killed 25 NSyA fighters, captured at least 15 fighters, and beheaded two others. In two days it succeeded in regaining its lost positions and driving back the NSyA.

ISIS feared that the US-Russian coordinated weapons airdrop operations would enable ground forces to hit its positions in Raqqa and Hasaka countryside and Deir Ezzor city, which, when coupled with air strikes, would force it to change their defensive tactics. But the fragility of the al-Bukamal operation was a welcome relief to ISIS, and it left no opportunity for the US-backed forces to prove their ability to prove to international observers that they are able to seize and retain territory and empower local residents to stand up against ISIS as they have done areas of Iraq and Syria such as Manbij and Falluja.

As a result of this failed operation, ISIS was able to discover strands of resistance in al-Bukamal. Khazal al-Sarhan, the commander of the NSyA, was in contact with these strands and was prepared to tap into them to help topple ISIS. Now that it has discovered this fifth column in the city, ISIS will not hesitate to arrest anyone it has caught, both to end the immediate threat and terrorize the rest of population into silence.

The al-Bukamal operation lacked sufficient geographical and military studies. For example, the NSyA attacked al-Sukkariya, which is a key village because it controls the supply route through the Syrian-Iraqi border, but which ISIS, knowing its strategic importance, heavily defended. Even if ISIS had been driven out of al-Sukkariya, it would have quickly launched a counter attack to retake it because it cannot afford to lose the supply route between Iraq and Syria, and so the NSyA would need a plan to defend it. Moreover, the location of the airdrops backfired against the NSyA forces. When international forces airdropped weapons near al-Hamdan Airport and al-Sukkariya village, it tipped ISIS off that an attack was coming at those locations, giving it time to reinforce its position. Both of these locations are important enough that ISIS will sacrifice significant forces defending them. Ramping up air strikes against ISIS positions, usually a guarantee that the ground forces will then succeed, was not enough to overcome the group’s defenses.

Even if this operation had succeeded, it would leave the NSyA forces stuck between ISIS forces in al-Muraiyeh village (100 km from al-Bukamal) and forces in Iraq. The NSyA would only get supplies from airdrops, which are difficult operations to execute consistently and provide enough to ground forces under heavy attack.

A few lessons emerge after this failed operation. First, local support will be needed to drive ISIS out and maintain control over the city. Before ISIS arrived, the Nusra Front managed to maintain a significant presence by making alliances with local forces and providing them with aid in return for their support. Forces associated with the Free Syrian Army (FSA) also had a presence, but were more disorganized. These forces are still present, but ISIS has cowed them by killing anyone who dares to resist it, such as how it killed 700 individuals from the al-Sheitaat tribe for resisting it in August 2014. Finding a way to motivate, organize, and materially support them, while protecting them against any reprisals, is essential for maintaining this territory.

Second, Deir Ezzor and the surrounding areas are still largely tribal, and navigating these relations can be difficult. People like Muhannad Talaa from the FSA and Khazal al-Sarhan from the NSyA lack the necessary reputations needed to win over locals in al-Bukamal. Although there is probably no single individual who enjoys the necessary support of all the tribes, there are a number of fighters, local leaders, and former military officers who together could gain the support needed, such as Muhammad Aboud (the leader of military council in Der Ezzor), Omar Trad, (a former intelligence chief of FSA).

Third, rather than going for key but heavily defended positions, it would be better to take a more patient approach. Thus far, ground forces have made significant amounts of progress against ISIS in Deir Ezzor countryside. Though taking this territory will not immediately cut off ISIS’s supply route between Iraq and Syria, it will continue to squeeze ISIS forces, drain their resources, and demoralize them.

There is no quick solution to defeating ISIS. Rather, the process will take time, both to first drive ISIS out and to ensure that local forces can maintain control of the territory without international support. Air strikes in particular are of only limited benefit against guerrillas, meaning as local ground forces engage at close quarters with ISIS, they will need local support or will likely fail to hold the territory they take.

Abdullah al-Ghadawi is a Syrian journalist and editor at the Saudi newspaper Okaz.

Image: PHOTO: New Free Syrian Army recruits receive military training in Deraa province May 12, 2014. REUTERS/Mohamed Fares (SYRIA - Tags: POLITICS CIVIL UNREST CONFLICT)