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Defectors quit last US-backed rebel group in Syria, head for regime territory

Members of the Maghawir al-Thawra took weapons and fled Tanf for Palmyra

A suspected drug smuggler and other former member of the last remaining U.S.-backed rebel group in Syria defected to territory controlled by Bashar al-Assad government in an embarrassing spectacle for the opposition militia and U.S. Special Operations.

According to rebel sources familiar with the matter, Samir Ghannam al-Khidr and several members of the Maghawir al-Thawra militia and their families on Tuesday, April 14 defected to the city of Palmyra from the al-Tanf garrison, which is run by U.S. Army Special Forces in Syria’s eastern desert on the Iraq border.

Video purporting to show the defection spread on social media on Tuesday.

U.S. military machine guns, as well as other weapons, can be seen on board vehicles in the video. A Western military source with knowledge of operations in Syria confirmed the vehicles appeared to bear U.S. equipment.

The Maghawir denied the vehicles belonged to the militia.

A rebel source at Tanf familiar with the incident said the weapons were likely for personal protection while traversing the hostile desert, and may not have been intended for handover to the regime.

It was not clear why the militia members fled to government-controlled territory, but it is not the only defection in recent weeks. Earlier this month, a handful of Maghawir members also defected to the regime with their weapons, a source directly familiar with the matter told The Defense Post.

The defections were not enough to drain the ranks of the militia, which boasts a few hundred fighters, the sources said. 

The U.S.-backed rebel group sought on Twitter to distance itself from al-Khidr.

“He left because he could not smuggle drugs in this area due to the efforts of Maghaweir al-Thowra in interdicted drugs,” the Maghawir stated. “We allowed him to leave with his family, as we did not want to get in a conflict with him because all the women and children with him.”

Al-Khidr, a former senior officer in the Maghawir militia, was detained last year by members of another Syrian militia affiliated with Jordanian military intelligence on accusations of smuggling drugs and personnel across the Jordanian border. 

He was later released by Jordanian authorities. Al-Khidr then returned to the U.S.-controlled 55-km zone and remained there until he fled on Tuesday morning. A source familiar with the matter said Khidr was not allowed back into the Maghawir militia upon his return to the 55-km zone following his arrest in the spring of 2019.

Al-Khidr could not be reached for comment.

U.S. Army Special Forces have trained vetted Syrian rebels at al-Tanf since 2016 to fight against Islamic State, but the militias had little success on the battlefield. As the sole remaining rebel group, Maghawir al-Thawra has been relegated to securing a strategic swath of desert around the Baghdad-Damascus highway on Syria’s eastern border with Iraq.

The American-controlled, so-called 55-km zone is surrounded by desert patrolled by pro-Syrian regime units and Iran-backed militias. The desert also contains Syria’s largest and most active remnants of ISIS sleeper cells. The Pentagon’s Syria mission is only authorized to strike ISIS, not the regime and its affiliates, unless acting in self-defense.

The inhospitable 55-km zone is home to some 7,000-10,000 Syrian civilians who fled Assad’s army and ISIS throughout the nearly decade-long civil war.

A spokesperson for U.S.-led military Coalition against ISIS, which mans the al-Tanf zone, did not immediately respond to The Defense Post’s inquiry into the incident.

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