Syrian opposition factions are gearing up for a large-scale offensive against the "Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant" (ISIL) in the remote desert area near the Syrian border with Iraq and Jordan, officials tell Al-Mashareq.
The operation aims to drive ISIL from the tri-border area around al-Tanf border crossing with Iraq, known as al-Waleed on the Iraqi side, which is near al-Rukban refugee camp in the closed military zone between Jordan and Syria.
The most prominent of these factions is Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, which is allied with Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions in the area.
These include Usud al-Sharqiyah, the Martyrs of al-Qaryatayn, the Military Council in the Southern Region and the Martyr Ahmed Abdo Brigades.
"The military support provided by the international coalition was ramped up recently and it is currently at a very good level, and available capabilities are adequate for launching the operations we expect to carry out soon," Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra commander Lt. Col. Muhannad al-Tallaa told Al-Mashareq.
Preparations are under way for a new offensive to the east, he said, noting that new recruits have been joining the ranks of Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra from across the Badiya (Syrian desert).
ISIL attacked Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra posts in the vicinity of al-Tanf border crossing in the first week of April, al-Tallaa said, adding that it was able to repel the attack.
Afterwards, to enhance security and prevent future attacks, patrols were intensified and new fixed checkpoints and support posts were set up, he said.
Civilians used as human shields
Al-Rukban area and its refugee camp face a serious threat, as ISIL was able to send a car bomb that exploded and caused numerous casualties, al-Tallaa said.
Civilians in areas along the border controlled by ISIL who have not yet been able to flee are being forced to do many things against their will, he said, which include remaining in their areas or areas designated by the group.
ISIL intends to use them as human shields in order to disrupt Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra operations, he said.
To strengthen the protection of civilians in al-Rukban area, "we are setting up fixed and mobile checkpoints and placing some of them in the vicinity of the camp", he said.
"If a supporter of the group is identified in the camp, he is arrested immediately to foil any terrorist attack he may carry out or facilitate, and we give this matter special attention to empty the area of ISIL elements," al-Tallaa said.
Civilians in the Badiya and Palmyra regions live in real fear of being killed by ISIL, as its fighters have started opening fire on them indiscriminately, said Tariq al-Nuaimi, a relief worker in al-Rukban camp.
ISIL is on edge because it has suffered losses in the area and has been forced to withdraw from some areas, he told Al-Mashareq.
Civilians are opting to leave their homes and farms and head to al-Rukban camp near the Jordanian border because it is a relatively safer area, he added.
Even so, he said, ISIL has targeted the camp, most recently on April 8th, causing a number of deaths and injuries. This attack occurred in tandem with an ISIL attack on an FSA assembly point in their base near the camp.
Hopes for a return to normalcy
Al-Rukban camp residents, whose number has recently risen to 85,000, strongly support the anticipated military operation to drive out ISIL, al-Nuaimi said.
They hope the liberation of villages and farms in al-Qalamoun, Badiya and Palmyra will enable them to return to their homes and land, he said.
"Conditions in the camp have become unacceptable due to the fact that relief groups are refraining from providing assistance because of the potential danger posed by the group," he said.
Eliminating this threat would allow those organisations to resume their work in the camp and would help its residents remain steadfast while they await the liberation of their areas and their eventual return, al-Nuaimi said.
Rahif al-Khalidi, 35, who has been residing in al-Rukban camp for four months and is in charge of one of the teams formed to handle security there, told Al-Mashareq the camp is currently under the authority of the Palmyra and Badiya tribal council, which has formed administrative councils to run the camp.
Individual councils are concerned with the provision of medical care, supplies, education, police work, the judiciary and civil defence, he said.
Preventing ISIL infiltration
The civil defence and police bureaus handle security matters, particularly the conduct of identity and background checks on newcomers to the camp to prevent terrorists elements from infiltrating, al-Khalidi said.
This is important work, "as there are concerns that ISIL could send its elements to form sleeper cells inside the camp and mingle with its residents to wreak havoc or carry out sabotage", he said.
The tribal council is co-ordinating with the tribal army faction, which is providing protection for the camp from the outside with patrols around its perimeter, fixed checkpoints at its entrances and identity card checks, he said.
The civil defence’s security forces also are conducting a comprehensive census of the camp's residents to identify any terrorist element that may have slipped into the refugee camp among the throngs of people who entered it, he said.
This is necessary "as the camp’s population is growing daily as civilians continue to flee various areas, particularly the Badiya region", he said.
The intensity of the ongoing battles on more than one front with ISIL and news of the successive defeats it has suffered has motivated many youth in the camp to join the military factions in the area, al-Khalidi said.
Many have been joining Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, he noted.
"Many citizens who are able to fight moved their families to the camp to ensure their safety and free themselves up to volunteer to fight," he said, adding that there is no clearer way to demonstrate their rejection of ISIL.