We now have a bit of an explanation as to how the U.S.-backed New Syrian Army was so roughly handled by ISIS at Al-Bukamel last week: the lost their air force. Well, to be more precise they lost their American air support:
American warplanes were diverted from an offensive launched against the Islamic State last week by U.S.-backed rebels in Syria in order to bomb a more enticing target in Iraq, withdrawing air support at a critical moment and contributing to the failure of the rebel operation, according to U.S. officials familiar with the incident.
Aircraft assigned to provide cover for the offensive, launched June 28 to capture the eastern Syrian town of Bukamal, were ordered in the middle of the operation to leave the area and head instead to the outskirts of Fallujah, in neighboring Iraq, the officials said.
That “more enticing target” was a convoy of vehicles containing ISIS fighters, possibly with their families, fleeing Fallujah in the early morning hours of June 29, after the city fell to Iraqi forces. Reports say that around 250 ISIS fighters were killed (nobody has said anything definitive about civilian casualties–though it’s hard to imagine there weren’t any–so I have no idea if that figure includes non-combatants or not) and as many as 120 vehicles were destroyed. There’s a lot of uncertainty about who exactly did the striking and what exactly they struck–Iraqi military sources say the American anti-ISIS coalition initially refused to participate because there were believed to be civilians in the convoy, and that they only joined in the operation well after the Iraqis had already begun attacking it. Coalition fighters later struck remnants of the convoy when reports came in that they were attacking Iraqi civilians east of Ramadi.
Because so little has been revealed about what actually happened, it’s unsurprising that parts of the story don’t really hang together. For example, why would the Americans have apparently left their Syrian proxies high and dry in a rush to join the attack on the convoy when they weren’t all that keen on attacking the convoy in the first place? Why abandon the Albukamel fight at all if the Iraqis were already striking the convoy? It’s possible that the US suddenly decided to try to get some control over the convoy operation to minimize civilian casualties, but who knows? What happened to the New Syrian Army, though, could make it harder for the US to cultivate more anti-ISIS proxies in Syria. Why would anybody want to work with a patron who’s just going to up and check out in the middle of a fight because a more interesting target comes along?