In efforts to split the Islamic State’s territorial holdings in two, the U.S-backed New Syrian Army (NSA) launched a failed offensive to retake the town of Al Bukamal, which sits along Syria’s border with Iraq. Seizing the town would have dealt a severe blow to the Islamic State, cutting it in two and hindering its ability to move troops, weapons, and supplies across the now defunct border line.
The NSA initially closed in on the town, where NSA officials say they attempted to conduct a “deep penetration raid”. However, the Islamic State reportedly conducted a counter-assault that encircled the militia, resulting in an eventual retreat. According to Amaq, the Islamic State’s propaganda arm, IS fighters killed 40 NSA soldiers and captured an additional 15 fighters. Islamic State seized numerous weapons and vehicles used by NSA and displayed them in their propaganda.
The New Syrian Army is just the latest of several United States-supported militias since US President Barack Obama pledged $500 million to building up an opposition group to combat the Islamic State. That program was temporarily suspended after one of the groups, Division 30, was captured by the Al-Nusra front, an offshoot of Al-Qaeda. This resulted in a number of American weapons being handed over to the jihadist group, a situation which has also occurred with earlier U.S.-backed forces. The program was later restored in March.
The U.S previously supported a variety of rebel groups that made up the Free Syrian Army (FSA) against Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, training them and equipping them with supplies. But given FSA’s lack of unity and effectiveness, the Pentagon has shifted its attention away from training rebel groups against Assad for those targeting Islamic State, and has pursued an alliance with Kurdish militias in the north. The Kurds, who seek to eventually form an independent state spanning parts of Iraq, Syria, Turkey, and Iran, have dealt a number of defeats to the Islamic State, at one point getting within 50 km of its capital, Raqqah
In the south, the U.S has been searching for a robust anti-IS group; out of this vacuum came the New Syrian Army. Mostly members of the FSA’s Authenticity and Development Front, the NSA is a small group of Sunni rebels from the Deir ez-Zor Governorate. The US-backed rebels received training at U.S-run camps in Jordan before returning to Syria to combat the Islamic State; in March, the group captured the Tanaf border crossing between Iraq and Syria from IS. But according to the Washington Post, the group has been poorly equipped, being denied of crucial anti-tank missiles which made it vulnerable when an IS suicide bomber attacked its remote base in May. Alas, the group has been plagued by its ineffective leadership and lack of members, with the US seemingly unable to recruit sufficient fighters for the group.
The attempted raid on Al Bukamal was one of the NSA’s tests; one they failed due to what appears to be a lack of organization and training. The U.S. strategy has favored coordinating with local ground forces, given that the current political climate of the US does not favor direct military intervention. The US would obviously prefer to ally with a large, well-organized, and disciplined group, as it does with Kurdish forces in the North; however in Southern Syria, these groups are either not present or they themselves present a political or strategic problem (as is the case for the Assad Regime and jihadist forces such as Jabhat al Nusra and its allies.). The US has largely been limited to attempting to build and train small rebel groups from the ground-up. This has proven extremely difficult, as many of the opposition to IS comes from smaller local militia groups which are oft-times not very well organized or motivated.