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Pentagon needs to double down in battle for Syria’s Badia

With Gen. James Mattis making his first official visit as secretary of defense to Saudi Arabia, one particular point of commonality is the matter of Arab tribal forces (many from the Shammar tribal confederation) fighting against Daesh in eastern Syria. These forces are increasingly under attack by the Syrian regime’s air force, yet they have made impressive battlefield gains that have rattled Daesh’s senior leadership.

A mere four days after US cruise missile strikes against the regime’s Shayrat air base, Daesh launched a surprise attack against a small military base in Syria. It fought a deadly and prolonged battle against US special forces and Sunni Arab rebels stationed at this strategic junction along Syria’s tri-border area with Jordan and Iraq. All the Daesh fighters were killed, but they were clearly trying to overrun the Tanf outpost.

Russia is also spooked by the presence of US special forces alongside Sunni Arab forces in Tanf. In 2016, Russia launched multiple airstrikes around Tanf, targeting the forces that the US had helped train and equip.

The Pentagon has an opportunity to work with its Arab allies in enhancing joint support to Sunni Arab forces fighting in eastern and northern Syria. The battlefield gains by groups such as the Syrian Elite Forces (SEF) and Usuud Al-Sharqiyah in eastern and north-eastern Syria, respectively, have been taking place along a front in the battle against Daesh that has not been so readily visible to the public. 

It should work with its Arab allies on a clear and bold plan for eastern Syria to ensure that the battle for Raqqa and the Euphrates river valley does not tragically end in a wasted pyrrhic victory. 

— Oubai Shahbandar  

The Badia, or deep desert countryside, has historically been a smuggling route, first leveraged by the regime in 2005 to move foreign fighters into Iraq to fight US and coalition forces. Years before the Arab Spring and Syrian civil war, Al-Qaeda in Iraq actively ran a supply route from Albu Kamal on the Syrian side to the Iraqi city of Al-Qaim, a route that was almost certainly overseen by elements of the Syrian regime’s security services.

Daesh eventually took over the area, and is using it as a staging ground to resupply and reinforce its forces in eastern Syria and northern Iraq. At this time, tribal forces led by Sheikh Ahmad Al-Assi Al-Jarba have captured strategic terrain a few kilometers east of Raqqa, and are slowly closing in on Daesh’s vital fighting positions around the city itself. Meanwhile, Usuud Al-Sharqiya has made impressive advances closer to the Jordanian and Iraqi borders.

In order to sustain battlefield gains against Daesh, an Arab force needs to be the one that enters Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. The current largest local force in eastern Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), is essentially a cut-out for the problematic Kurdish separatist People’s Defense Forces (PYD).

So the Pentagon should double down and help, in conjunction with Arab allies, local Arab fighters from the SEF and Usuud Al-Sharqiyah in a major offensive that advances from the south and northeast simultaneously. This is the formula to successfully encircle Daesh and leave the enemy no time or space to recuperate.

The long expanse of desert and villages that dot eastern Syria south of the Euphrates river valley to the Jordanian border is strategic terrain for Daesh. Regime forces in this area are mainly confined to eastern Homs province, Palmyra and Deir Ezzor city. In recent weeks, the regime has increased airstrikes against Arab tribal forces fighting Daesh in the Badia.

While regime forces are far away from the frontlines maintained by the SEF and Usuud Al-Sharqiyah, this will likely change as Daesh loses more and more ground. It is a matter of time before Iran-backed militias clash directly with Arab tribal fighters who are battling Daesh.

To prevent this outcome, the Pentagon must demonstrate a credible show of force as deterrence. It could position short-range air defense systems in the Tanf air base overseen by US special forces. This would send a powerful signal. Diplomatically, it can be couched as a defensive measure against Daesh drone attacks. After all, Russia has moved air defense systems into the bases it now occupies in Syria.

Defeating Daesh requires a bottom-up solution. Now is the time to significantly scale up support for these local Sunni Arab forces that have proven their will and ability to take the fight straight to Daesh. Doing so will require a new level of cooperation between the US Defense Department and regional Arab allies, and it will not be without some risk.

But consider the alternative: A short-term military campaign that dislodges Daesh, only to have extremism in eastern Syria continue to threaten regional and international security. The Pentagon needs to work with its Arab allies on a clear and bold plan for eastern Syria to ensure that the battle for Raqqa and the Euphrates river valley does not tragically end in a wasted pyrrhic victory.

• Oubai Shahbandar is a former Department of Defense senior adviser, and currently a strategic communications consultant specializing in Middle Eastern and Gulf affairs.