The call came around noon, about four hours after U.S.-backed Syrian fighters announced they had taken over an air base outside a town held by the Islamic State near the Iraqi border. “We are trapped. Pray for us,” a commander called into the operation room.

Then communication was cut. Six hours later, the exhausted fighters from the group, known as the New Syrian Army, returned to their base in Tanf, nearly 150 miles across the desert to the west, having lost four fighters, four vehicles and ammunition.

The swift, humiliating defeat last Wednesday marked the end of a widely advertised offensive launched less than 24 hours earlier with intense U.S.-led air cover. The fighters had hoped to capture Boukamal, a prize possession of ISIS and the extremist group’s last border crossing between Iraq and Syria.

The Boukamal offensive was the first serious attempt to take on ISIS in the northeastern province of Deir el-Zour, and the first major test for the nascent force of some 1,000 fighters, formed in November from a coalition of Syrian army defectors, local militias and Islamist fighting groups, many of them from the area.

The quick collapse of the offensive reflects the difficulties the U.S. faces in creating an effective Syrian force against ISIS, given the complex terrain, competing personal and tribal loyalties — and the extremists’ continued ability to fight on multiple fronts.

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