Inside ISIS’s Siege on Deir Ezzor

Deir Ezzor residents find themselves caught between the Islamic State (ISIS) and Syrian regime. ISIS currently controls areas that the armed resistance controlled through mid-2014, the entire suburbs of Deir Ezzor, and large parts of the city neighborhoods. The remaining residents live under the regime, which has tight control over the neighborhoods of al-Joora, al-Qusoor, Harabish, and al-Baghiliya, representing 20% of the city’s area, in addition to the Deir Ezzor military airport.

Since early 2015, ISIS has put the regime areas under siege. The regime has tried to turn this into a media victory by emphasizing UN statistics about how many people ISIS besieges in Deir Ezzor. Valerie Amos, the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Undersecretary General, pointed out that the number of civilians beyond the reach of relief agencies has risen from 212,000 in February 2015 to 440,000 in March 2015. Of these, ISIS has besieged 228,000 people in the Deir Ezzor neighborhoods, which fall under regime control.

The regime and Russia are exploiting the situation in Deir Ezzor to achieve publicity gains with the international community. Despite the regime’s ill-treatment of the residents under its control and bombing of civilian areas under ISIS’s control, the news outlet Russia Today blamed international organizations for sending humanitarian aid to “the areas under the control of the armed factions, where the main portion goes to extremists and is used to cover armed gangs’ needs.” It added, “The Russian Defense Ministry sent humanitarian aid to the city via airdrop,” referring to the areas under regime control, “[w]here it will be distributed by the local residents.”

Abu Khalid, one of the residents of Al-Joora neighborhood, recounted via Whatsapp that his neighborhood is suffering under a stifling siege. The combination of ISIS barring entry into these neighborhoods and the regime prohibiting people from departing has limited the flow of food supplies to the point where stores are empty and a small number of merchants control prices. Those merchants are affiliates of the regime which transports supplies in and out via helicopters. Abu Khalid added that since the beginning of the siege there has been a number of deaths due to malnutrition. He personally attended three of these funerals and heard of a number of others.

Abu Khalid said the residents live in under austere conditions. ISIS’s shelling of the area has killed dozens of civilians, and there has been no electricity since March 2015. Additionally, residents no longer have butane gas tanks as an alternative for cooking and lighting, and so have resorted to using wood for fuel. Furthermore, chlorine supplies are scarce, leading to unpotable water.

Abu Khalid stated that food prices are ten times higher than the pre-war prices. He added, “For several days my children have had nothing except a can of sardines, four loaves of bread, and one kilogram of potatoes. They are looking like ghosts, and their skin is turning yellow.” Over the last few months Abu Khalid has lost 20 kilograms, approximately 44 pounds. “I don’t care, I can withstand hunger. What hurts me is hearing the moaning of my three children. I cannot bear hearing that,” Abu Khalid said.

According to a former Red Crescent employee, the International Committee of the Red Cross has not assisted the besieged in Deir Ezzor except once, during which it brought enough supplies for about half the people registered with the Syrian Arab Red Crescent branch in Deir Ezzor. The former employee stated, “The Commission informed us that they had originally planned to drop food supplies from helicopters. However, the Syrian regime objected to that plan because it wanted to increase the number of tragic cases amongst the civilians in Deir Ezzor as a result of the siege.”

Jalal al-Hamad, spokesperson for Observatory of Justice for life in Deir Ezzor, which has documented the situation in Deir Ezzor since the beginning of the siege, stated that 26 individuals died because of lack of food and medicine. He added that civilians in adjacent neighborhoods are desperate due to food and fuel shortages, power outages, and ISIS’s continued shelling.

Al-Hamad pointed out that there are four bakeries working in the besieged areas, only one of which works for six hours a day to serve civilians. The other three provide bread to regime troops. He added that there is only one hospital for civilians with negligible services due to the lack of staff and supplies. There is a military hospital that does not receive civilians and offers services only to the regime’s army and its supporting militias. Medical supplies have become exorbitantly expensive, and are sold on the black market by the pill rather than in packages.

The regime transports supplies to its soldiers via the airport but shares little with the civilians. The regime’s ability to transport supplies in and out means that it can secure the city’s basic needs if it allowed aid organizations to bring in supplies. The regime soldiers in Deir Ezzor benefit from the new markets that the war has created. They accept payments from civilians to help them leave the city via military helicopter, acquire identification cards or other official documentation, overlook compulsory conscription for the youth, and release people who have been detained. Some soldiers are also connected to local merchants and receive a share of the high prices, as was common before the revolution.

The regime has stepped up its media campaign in Deir Ezzor to divert the international community’s attention from areas that the regime has under siege, such as Madaya and Moadamiya outside of Damascus. Protecting its image is important after recent media attention on the regime’s sieges brought international condemnation, with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon calling the use of starvation as a weapon a war crime. Additionally, by retaining a presence in the country’s east the regime can portray itself as an important partner in any future coalition to battle terrorism and stabilize the country.

As for ISIS, forcing the regime out of Deir Ezzor will help restore its fighters’ morale after the losses they have endured in Iraq and Syria and remove a threat in the heart of its territory. This past week ISIS made significant gains against regime forces in Deir Ezzor, utilizing the sandstorm for cover against regime artillery. It remains to be seen whether they will be able to force the regime entirely out of Deir Ezzor, or even just hold their ground once the weather clears. However, it is clear that whether ISIS or the regime controls the city, the civilians will continue to suffer.

Ghaith al-Ahmad works as a journalist for The New Arab. He previously worked as a media coordinator for the Syrian Red Crescent in Deir Ezzor.

Image: (Photo: Reuters. Residents who said they have received permission from the Syrian government to leave the besieged town of Madaya wait with their belongings after an aid convoy entered Madaya, Syria, January 14, 2016. According to the UN, hundreds of thousands of people have been besieged in different areas Syria, including Deir Ezzor, for months. REUTERS/Omar Sanadiki)