Military forces from the regime of Bashar al-Assad, along with Iranian-sponsored militias, are moving quickly to capture territory abandoned by the Islamic State as they retreat in the face of the U.S.-led coalition’s campaign in Syria, Reuters reports.
Syrian rebel commanders reported on the government troop movements Monday, saying Assad forces were moving quickly with heavily armored vehicles to seize areas left behind by fleeing Islamic State fighters before they fall into the hands of the Free Syrian Army, or other rebel groups. Free Syrian Army troops have made significant progress in Syria’s south, in sparsely populated regions near the borders with Iraq and Jordan.
“The regime’s plan is to reach the Iraqi-Syrian border and cut the road on our advance further toward the northeast against Islamic State’s strongholds there after they lost territory in the Badia,” said a spokesman for the Free Syrian Army, referring to the arid region in south and central Syria.
According to the rebels, the regime is also trying to push in some areas across the border between Syria and Iraq in order to link up with Iraqi Shi’ite militias. Jordan, who has closely monitored the situation along their northern border, was reportedly worried by the presence of the Lebanese Hezbollah operating just over their border. The Jordanians have been backing moderate rebel groups as a bulwark against Islamic State forces.
As regime forces push east, they also have the potential of coming into closer contact with American Special Operations Forces, who have been training rebels near the al-Tanf border crossing. The same base came under attack from ISIS forces last month.
Perhaps as an unintended consequence of the U.S. choosing to focus the majority of its combat power in the region solely on the Islamic State, the Assad regime nonetheless benefits from the removal of a major combatant from the battlefield. With the support of major allies like Iran and Russia, groups of ‘moderate’ rebels like the Syrian Democratic Forces or others like the Free Syrian Army will have a more difficult time facing the regime once the civil war enters a new phase after the removal of the Islamic State as a major stakeholder in the conflict.
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