August 2, 2017
Who Will Take Deir Ezzor from ISIS?
By Abdullah Almousa
Deir Ezzor province is the second largest province of Syria in terms of area, after Homs. It occupies an important geographical position for all parties to the Syrian conflict, sharing a frontier with Iraq’s Anbar province, where border villages such as Rawa and al-Qaim, close to the Syrian town of al-Bukamal, are still under the control of the Islamic State (ISIS, ISIL, or Daesh). Deir Ezzor also borders on three provinces of Syria. It consists of three main regions: Deir Ezzor city, Al-Mayadeen and al-Bukamal. Its economy is largely based on rich agricultural lands, famous for their production of cotton and wheat, as well as oil and gas reserves. The province was the first in Syria to fall out of regime hands, apart from a section of Deir Ezzor city and its military airport. ISIS took control of the province in July 2014 after a bloody fight with Free Syrian Army (FSA) factions and al-Qaeda’s Syrian affiliate, the Nusra Front.
The escalation towards a battle for Deir Ezzor began in April this year as the struggle for the Syrian desert started to become a military priority. The FSA in March launched an operation it dubbed “We Saddled the Horses to Cleanse the Hamad,” a reference to a vast area of Syria’s desert. The offensive aimed to open a corridor to eastern Qalamoun, which is under siege by regime forces and ISIS. FSA forces managed to take control of large areas of Syrian desert, stretching from the Damascus countryside to Suwaida in the southwest and including the eastern Qalamoun region in the Damascus countryside. In May, the regime and its allies began advancing in the desert from two axes, first from the Aliyaniyah area of Homs province and secondly from the south of Palmyra, meeting in the Ras al-Wa’r area on the Iraqi border. Ras al-Wa’r is around 30 km northeast of the Zakaf base recently set up by the international coalition against ISIS and its local ally, the Revolutionary Commandos Army (previously known as the New Syrian Army) as a forward base to protect the al-Tanaf base and for launching military operations towards Deir Ezzor. Regime-allied militias have cut off the road that would link Syrian opposition and coalition forces in the desert to Deir Ezzor, reducing their chances of advancing on the province.
The only option for FSA forces in the desert after regime forces cut off the route was the recent American suggestion to the Revolutionary Commandos Army that it move some of its forces to another coalition base in the al-Shadadi area of Hasakeh province, north-east of Deir Ezzor, where the Elite Force (the military wing of political group Syria’s Tomorrow Movement) are based, under the command of Sheikh Ahmad al-Jarba. These forces have fought pitched battles in the western , especially northwestern Deir Ezzor countryside, where the Elite Force advanced in coordination with the SDF and seized the Abu Khashab and Jarawan areas of the province’s northwest with air support from the coalition.
FSA forces are still rejecting this suggestion as they would be forced to enter Deir Ezzor in coordination with the SDF. However, the FSA and the Elite Force have very few personnel, who could not possibly be sufficient to start the battle for Deir Ezzor given Turkey’s flat refusal to allow Euphrates Shield forces to take part in such a fateful battle (because Turkey’s priority is securing its own border). This leaves the FSA with two options: either agree to work with the SDF or allow the SDF to enter Deir Ezzor alone.
It makes sense to rule out the possibility of regime forces taking complete control of Deir Ezzor, especially in light of American military policy in eastern Syria, where Washington has found itself forced to escalate against regime and allied forces. American air strikes have not prevented the regime and its allies from advancing as far as the Iraqi border. At the same time, the United States seems to have the strategic goal of scaling back Iranian clout in Syria as much as possible.
Washington is also aware of the great distance separating the SDF from Deir Ezzor, while regime forces are now on the edges of the strategically vital city of Sukhna on the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor road after taking control of the Dibsan, Al-Dali’a, Al-Fahda and Al-Zamla oil fields, among others. Sukhna, 100 km from Deir Ezzor, sits in a rough area of hills and valleys where it makes sense for ISIS to embed itself and defend the area, ambush troops, and inflict major losses on regime forces. Furthermore, the United Staets has barred regime forces and Iranian militias from advancing on areas it sees as sensitive, especially those along the Iraqi border, while regime forces could be allowed to make incursions into the depths of the desert and, in all likelihood, take over the Shamiyya side of the desert. The Shamiyya side is the area west of Deir Ezzor city and south of Raqqa city. The regime’s success seems more secure after its recent rapid advance, with the backing of its allies, south of Raqqa city, taking advantage of ISIS forces’ focus on battle for Raqqa. This advance puts the regime 60 km from Deir Ezzor city, and could provide the chance for the regime to break ISIS’ siege on the Deir Ezzor military airport. However, it would take a significant effort for the regime to reach the airport before the battle for Raqqa is over.
The Syrian regime knows very well that its chances of taking full control of Deir Ezzor province are next to zero, but it will not stop its troops from advancing everywhere possible, exploiting the long front it shares with ISIS in south-eastern Aleppo, eastern Hama, and eastern and southern Homs. It will also take advantage of the fact the SDF is busy with the battle for Raqqa. Thus, regime forces over the past two months made advances in southeastern Aleppo, southern Raqqa province and north of Palmyra.
This leaves the SDF as the United States’ most likely ally in the battle for Deir Ezzor, for many reasons; first and foremost, the experience its troops have gained in dealing with the coalition, its aircraft, and its military tactics. SDF-held areas in the eastern Raqqa countryside and southern Hasaka province are the group’s closest strongholds to ISIS in Deir Ezzor. The area separating the SDF and ISIS in northern and western Deir Ezzor is a flat landscape free of rugged terrain, which allows coalition aircraft to carry out strikes against any IS forces in the area. The SDF can be expected to make rapid gains in this area until they reach Deir Ezzor and the other major cities along the Euphrates river.
The United States will make major efforts to persuade FSA forces in the Syrian desert to join the SDF in the fight for Deir Ezzor because it knows it needs an Arab force among its allies in this battle, especially given that the vast majority of these FSA troops in the region originate from Deir Ezzor, a region dominated by tribes that will not accept a new governing structure, especially one run by non-Arabs (and specifically Kurds).
But it is likely these FSA factions will join the SDF, hoping to roll back the influence of the Kurdish-majority force in Deir Ezzor due to the sensitivities between Kurds and Arabs in the eastern area, which ISIS has sought for years to exacerbate—on top of SDF abuses in the fight for Raqqa. More importantly, the FSA and the tribes, all of which are Sunnis, fear that Iraq’s Shiite-dominated Popular Mobilization Units will enter Deir Ezzor, which would be a nightmare come true for the province’s residents. That fear has grown with the creation of a Syrian PMU battalion in Hasakeh, which the Syrian regime announced in coordination with the Ukaidat and Bakara tribes following a deal to form a tribal force to fight ISIS. That coincided with the publication of pictures of tribal notables in Hasakeh, including Hassan Mohammad Al-Muslat and Abdulhamid Al-Kandah, alongside a Shia leader. The people of Deir Ezzor also fear forced conscription of young men by the SDF.
The scenarios are many and increasingly complicated. Exactly how the battle for Deir Ezzor will play out is not clear, due to America’s unpredictable policy on managing the conflict in Syria, which is drawn up by military minds at the Pentagon and has yet to give serious thought to anything beyond military affairs and how to military defeat ISIS in the shortest time possible. On top of that, there are hidden divisions between the Pentagon, a new keystone power in the south, and the Military Operations Center (MOC) that is partly run by the CIA. The Pentagon relies on the Revolutionary Commandos Army as its main ally, while the CIA works mostly with the remaining factions of the FSA.
The Russian’s, for their part, have not show clear indication of their intent yet. The Russians are focusing their attention on securing their airports and their vast stocks of military equipment around Damascus, including at the al-Sin, al-Damir, Khalkhala, Maraj, Rahil, al-Nasariya and al-Mazze air bases and Damascus International Airport. However, they have allowed their agents—regime forces and Iranian-backed militias (Hezbollah, Al-Nukhaba, Al-Fatimiyoun Al-Afghan, Al-Zaynabiyoun, Pakistani fighters)—to conduct raids deep into the Syrian desert for the first time since the start of the Syrian revolution, as well as seizing oil and gas fields. But the Russian response to American air strikes on a convoy of its regime and militia allies in the Syrian desert did not go beyond a diplomatic response, doing little more than save Moscow’s face with its allies, who had sustained a painful blow.
Abdullah Almousa is a researcher and military analyst with four years of experience. Currently, he works as a manager for Hooz. He previously worked as a field officer for international organizations in Syria. Follow him on twitter @Abu_Orwa91