Not all Syrian conflicts are waged via airstrikes and guns. Some are a matter of good, old-fashioned persuasion. Syria remains caught in a triangle of foreign interests as the Assad regime and its friends in Russia and Iran are trying to sweet talk rebels aligned with the U.S. into switching teams. The goal? In the short term, it’s a simple turf war. In the long term, it’s nothing short of getting the United States out of Syria. The sooner the U.S. looses its foothold in At Tanf, a piece of prime real estate in southern Syria near its border with Jordan and Iraq, the sooner Assad and his allies hope they can edge the U.S. out entirely.
“Assad and his allies realize that the best way to undermine the coalition campaign in Syria is to target the local Syrian partners that the coalition is working by, with, and through,” explained Nick Heras, an expert on Middle Eastern security. “Some of the Syrian fighters at the Tanf garrison have decided to cut the best deal with Assad now, and be part of his armies, rather than to fight with the Americans, be labeled as ‘traitors,’ by the regime, and then have to deal with Assad’s wrath.” The Shohada Al Quartyan rebel group, for example, is no longer in the U.S. coalition, as they were fine with fighting ISIS but unwilling to turn against Assad.
According to U.S. Special Envoy Brett McGurk, there are a lot of considerations about which rebel groups to work with, balancing a variety of motivations and loyalties:
“A Syrian group that we might work with wants to basically use the protection of living with us to go out and conduct attacks against the regime and then come back and live in close proximity to U.S. personnel, that’s completely unacceptable, because it puts U.S. personnel at risk.”
Colonel Joe Scrocca was able to “confirm there have been a handful of isolated defections,” but he remains confident in operations. But the U.S. still has plenty of rebel allies, for now. “The Maghawir al-Thawra has been a trusted partner in the counter-ISIS campaign,” said Scrocca of one group that has stayed in the coalition, “and we will continue to support their efforts to defeat ISIS in Syria.” It was the Maghawir al-Thawra who tipped U.S. forces off to the Russian/Regime recruitment effort, after some of their members departed to join pro-Assad forces.
Despite the recent Syrian ceasefire brokered between President Trump and Vladimir Putin during the G20 summit, Russia continues to aggressively pursue its Middle Eastern agenda. Recent reports suggest that Russia might be arming the Taliban in Afghanistan in addition to their machinations in Syria. That could have a later impact on the United States. If the rumors are true, Russia’s aim in arming the Taliban would be, on the surface, a means of helping them better fight ISIS. But once ISIS is out of the picture, in Afghanistan, Syria, or elsewhere, the rebel groups both super powers are courting will almost certainly hang on to those weapons for the next Middle Eastern power play.