inside raqqa old city_00001920.jpg
Exclusive: on the front lines inside the old city of Raqqa
03:06 - Source: CNN

Story highlights

So far the coalition says there has only been "less than a handful" of defections

Last week CNN reported hat a US-backed rebel group had balked at the coalition's insistence that it only fight ISIS not the Assad regime

CNN  — 

Russia and the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad are attempting to entice US-backed rebels based at the At Tanf garrison in southern Syria to switch sides, US officials tell CNN, in an apparent bid to oust the coalition from a strategic piece of real estate that is seen as crucial to Syria and Iran’s long-term interests in the region.

It’s just the latest gambit in a months-long tug of war between the US and Assad and his Russian and Iranian backers in the Syrian desert.

One official said the recruitment campaign, which appears to have had very limited, if any, success to date, is aimed at mid-level commanders of the groups being trained and equipped by the US-led coalition at the At Tanf base which sits in near the tri-border area of Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

So far, the coalition says there has only been “less than a handful” of defections from the US-backed Maghawir al-Thawra group, one of the larger units based at At Tanf.

US Army Col. Ryan Dillon, a coalition spokesman, told CNN that one of the defectors was actively attempting to recruit his former comrades and convince them to join the regime but added that those efforts were having no measurable success to date. Dillon would not say whether Russia or the regime were directly behind the recruiting effort.

The official told CNN that the leader of the recruitment effort is a former rebel sub-commander who has criticized the US forces at At Tanf and has promised would-be recruits positions in the regime’s armed forces as they clear their homelands in the Middle Euphrates River Valley. This has has prompted the US military to be concerned about more defections in the future given that the regime has blocked the coalition and its allies from advancing on that same area.

He added the regime’s recruitment effort was assessed to have two objectives, building a force of local fighters and driving the coalition out of key real-estate in southern Syria.

The first objective is fulfilling the regime’s need for a “hold-force” of Sunni Arabs capable of securing areas the regime captures from ISIS.

US officials have said some 80% of the regime’s effective fighters are Iranian-backed Shia militias and the pro-regime forces near At Tanf consist primarily of Iranian-backed Shia groups. The coalition has said publicly that many of its allied fighters at At Tanf hail from the Middle Euphrates River Valley, a key ISIS-held area where US officials believe the terror group has relocated its leadership and based some 5,000 to 10,000 fighters.

The second objective involves an attempt to weaken the coalition’s rationale for occupying At Tanf, allowing Moscow, Damascus and Tehran to pressure the US and its allies to leave the strategically valuable area.