BEIRUT – ISIS has gone on alert as US-backed rebels aim to advance toward the border town of Al-Boukamal in a bid to cut the jihadist group’s supply lines between Iraq and Syria.
On Tuesday, the New Syrian Army announced the start of its campaign to gain control of Al-Boukamal, which lies across from the Iraqi border town of Al-Qaim deep behind ISIS’s main frontlines in eastern Syria.
Hours after the start of the offensive, the shadowy group active in remote stretches of the eastern Syrian desert seized the defunct Al-Hamdan airbase five-kilometers northwest of Al-Boukamal while fighting also raged overnight southwest of the border town, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
ISIS dug trenches in the southwestern front of the town and planted mines throughout the area, sources told the monitoring NGO tracking developments in war-torn Syria.
By mid-afternoon Wednesday, however, reports emerged that the jihadist group had pushed the New Syrian Army forces backed from Al-Hamdan, with the Observatory saying that a number of rebels were killed in the counterattack, while ISIS paraded vehicles captured from the group through the streets of Al-Boukamal.
A photo purports to show a New Syrian Army fighter raising the flag of the Syrian revolution outside Al-Boukamal. (Facebook/The.NSAy.Official)
The jihadist group moved quickly on its propaganda front, releasing yet another one of its grisly videos showing the execution of five young men from Al-Boukamal on charges of spying for the New Syrian Army as well the international coalition.
The men—who had their heads chopped off—were accused of forming a spy cell to gather information on ISIS, including its security installations as well as location of civilian infrastructure.
ISIS also went into action in Al-Mayadeen, a town located approximately eighty kilometers northeast of Al-Boukamal that has been the site of numerous incidents of unrest against the organization.
“ISIS closed all internet cafes in Al-Mayadeen in conjunction with the battle announced by the New Syrian Army,” the activist Deir Ezzor 24 outlet reported late Tuesday night.
The SOHR, for its part, said that ISIS members went on “security alert” as checkpoints were erected throughout the main streets of the town.
Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Forces on the move outside Al-Boukamal. (YouTube)
The international coalition supported the New Syrian Army’s sudden offensive while allied forces operating on both sides of the Iraqi-Syrian border also entered the fray, however the rebel forces failed to seize Al-Boukamal.
Three coalition helicopters landed New Syrian Army troops approximately four-kilometers west of Al-Boukamal on Tuesday, according to the SOHR, as coalition airstrikes in the meantime targeted ISIS north of the town.
The New Syrian Army also claimed its forces were airdropped, saying their troops “landed behind enemy lines” after which they took the Al-Hamdan airport and nearby village, which are located northwest of Al-Boukamal.
According to a statement issued Wednesday morning by the group, its fighters also seized “the Al-Husaybah area and border crossing [outside the town] as well and the southern southern desert and the whole eastern regions in the vicinity of Abu Kamal.”
The US-backed force further claimed that “sleeper cells of rebel clans in the Al-Boukamal countryside facilitated the advance of our troops.”
Meanwhile, the ISIS-affiliated A3maq news agency said midday Wednesday that the jihadist group had launched a counterattack around Al-Hamdan, killing 40 rebels while capturing 15 others.
Amid reports of the New Syrian Army's withdrawal from the airbase outside Al-Boukamal, the group issued a statement claiming it killed 20 ISIS fighters.
However, the group walked back its earlier publicly stated goals of seizing the town, and instead said it had "conducted a deep penetration raid."
A New Syrian Army social media account on Tuesday heralded the start of an offensive on the Iraqi side of the border aimed at seizing the town of Al-Qaim, which lies across the border from Syria’s Al-Boukamal, as well as Rawa, a town approximately 80-kilometers eastward along the Euphrates River.
An image uploaded by a New Syrian Army-affiliated Facebook accounts purports to show forces in Iraq's Anbar preparing for a major offensive.
The announcement did not go into specifics on the two-pronged offensive, saying only that tribal forces in Iraq’s Anbar province as well as state counterterrorism forces were being backed by coalition airstrikes in the Iraqi side of the border.
The Ahmad al-Abdo Martyrs Forces also touted that it also was fighting alongside the New Syrian Army, and released a video purporting to show its troops on the move outside Al-Boukamal.
The Ahmad al-Abdo Forces previously took part in the battle to take the nearby Tanf Border crossing on March 4, 2016 from ISIS.
NOW's English news desk editor Albin Szakola (@AlbinSzakola) wrote this report. Amin Nasr translated Arabic-language material.