ISIS’s last stand proving elusive
Tunis- As the stone walls and ancient caravansaries of Raqqa’s Old City echo with the sounds of mortars and automatic weapons, the situation for many in the Islamic State’s self-declared caliphate grows ever more grave.
However, 141km south-east of Raqqa on the banks of the Euphrates in Deir ez-Zor, another battle looms — one that risks pushing threadbare détente between Syria’s competing factions to a breaking point.
Coalition jets forced two breaches in Raqqa’s eighth-century Rafiqah wall on July 4, allowing fighters with the US-sponsored and Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) into the heart of the city and past the booby traps and snipers that have dogged coalition fighters in clashes with the Islamic State (ISIS) elsewhere.
An unidentified SDF fighter told Britain’s Guardian newspaper that as many as 50 air strikes were hitting Raqqa every day. Paul Hatfield, an American volunteer with the Kurdish forces, told the newspaper: “We also see a lot of drone bombs. We had hundreds of them since we started in Raqqa.”
Hatfield said his unit was in a dense neighbourhood approximately 8km from the city centre and had been holding the SDF’s western line of attack for two weeks. “It’s very dangerous, with a lot of snipers,” he said.
International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) Regional Director of Public Affairs Thomas Garofalo said more than 184,000 people had been displaced since April, including more than 100,000 since the beginning of May.
The IRC said 50,000-100,000 people were thought to be trapped in ISIS-controlled Raqqa and more than 370,000 people could be displaced by fighting from both the city and surrounding areas.
“The vast majority of those fleeing are women, children and older men,” Garofalo said via e-mail. “IRC teams were told younger men are worried about taking the journey because they think they are more likely to be either killed by ISIS or be misidentified as belonging to ISIS.”
Those fleeing the city told relief workers that roads have been heavily mined and snipers lie in wait.
“We have met people who told us they saw people executed for trying to leave. Wealthier families are in a better position to pay to be smuggled out of the city,” Garofalo said. “IRC health teams responding north of Raqqa city have helped people injured by mines as they attempted to cross the front line. This included a 7-year-old girl who saw her family killed. On top of this, civilians continue to face risks from coalition air strikes, which have already killed scores of civilians and have also hit health clinics and ambulances.”
The battle for Raqqa is a month into a campaign coalition planners say will last as long as six months, depending on the opposition they encounter. Every indication is pointing to ISIS having pulled back most of its veteran fighters, many from the Caucasus region in southern Russia, to Deir ez-Zor, leaving a garrison of younger, mostly Syrian fighters, snipers and booby traps to defend their hold on the city.
“The real battle is likely going to be at Deir ez-Zor,” said Nicholas Heras, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security. “It’s older, it’s easier to defend and, after having been there for so long (the province has been under sporadic jihadist control since the Syrian revolution), the Sunni tribal militias that operate in the area have become
acclimatised and established social and political ties.”
Those ties could prove critical. In October 2015, the oil fields at Deir ez-Zor were estimated to be producing 34,000-40,000 barrels per day. While it is impossible that production has not been affected by fighting, control of Deir ez-Zor means retaining much of the region’s rich oil reserves.
There are also smuggling opportunities offered by the town’s position. As well, ISIS control of the region looks to be hardwired into the terrain. Attempts to locate and sponsor groups that might resist ISIS control within Deir ez-Zor have proved disastrous. “ISIS has become adept at countering insurrectionist activity. They have typically infiltrated these groups before the West has even established firm contact,” Heras said.
With the SDF enmeshed at Raqqa, fighting at Deir ez-Zor has been limited to air strikes by Russia, Syria and the United States. On the ground, ISIS holds regime forces in an effective state of siege. However, with further Shia reinforcements anticipated to soon arrive in support of the regime, it may be that ISIS’s much “last stand” might not be happening yet.