Regime victory at Deir ez-Zor heralds a new chapter in Syria’s conflict
Tunis- The breakthrough of Syria’s regime forces at the desert city of Deir ez-Zor following years of siege, shelling and the attempted starvation of its inhabitants marks a dramatic turning point in the Syrian war.
Though the siege may have ended, the battle is a long way from won. The Islamic State (ISIS) has a strong presence throughout the governorate and within parts of the city.
Though the Assad regime’s recent pivot eastward proved successful, it has only been able to make gains after the establishment of de-escalation zones in the west freed its forces to do so.
Nearly 100,000 people are said to be in Deir ez-Zor, cut off from the rest of the war by ISIS, which surrounded the city for two years, leaving the inhabitants and regime forces within the city reliant on UN air drops for food and regime air drops for munitions.
Within Deir ez-Zor, the regime advance was met with trepidation. Some questioned whether the recent concentration of the regime’s finite firepower at Deir ez-Zor risks leaving Jabhat Fateh al-Sham (formerly known as al-Nusra Front, al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria) free to shore up its stronghold in Idlib in north-western Syria.
Though relieved to have his hometown and activists within it freed from ISIS, Jalal Alhamad, executive director of Justice for Life, one of the NGOs that liaises between the occupied and besieged citizens of Deir ez-Zor and external authorities, said he was concerned about what liberation may mean.
“We would rather it be another rebel group, preferably a local one, than the regime,” he said via Skype from his office on the Syrian border at Gaziantep. “Many people are afraid that they will be arrested and killed, often without being (officially) accused.
“Those in areas controlled by ISIS are especially afraid. They are scared not just of the Syrian Army but the militias like Hezbollah and others who are with them.”
People in Deir ez-Zor have cause to be scared. Justice for Life’s figures stated that from January 1, 2016, through August 30, 2017, 750 civilians were killed in and around Deir ez-Zor, most of them by the regime and its Russian allies.
Moreover, with a suspicion of the regime’s Shia militias and the loyalties of its Sunni population uncertain, Deir ez-Zor will likely prove costly to take and hold. However, the significance of its capture goes beyond mere territory.
In addition to the region’s oil output, estimated by the Financial Times in October 2016 at 34,000- 40,000 barrels per day (bpd), is the message breaking the siege at Deir ez-Zor sends to Syria and the world.
“It lets people know that (Syrian President Bashar) Assad is still in the fight against ISIS and supports the notion that the US presence in Syria is really just a cover for an eventual occupation,” said Nicholas Heras, Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security.
“The situation is far from over. Though ISIS has the capability to maintain a pretty lethal insurgency, [it is] probably still looking for a last pitched battle.”
Heras said ISIS remains a significant fighting force, capable of undertaking established battle manoeuvres in the desert and able to serve as a significant counter to any further regime advance.
“The regime and Russia can carpet-bomb Deir ez-Zor as much as they like but as long as ISIS is on the ground throughout the governorate, and we’re told that’s where most of their hardcore foreign fighters are, all it’s going to achieve is moving their fighters to another territory, or strengthen their resolve to remain and fight the regime,” he said.
With the regime’s ability to exert control across Syria limited by its access to manpower, checking ISIS at Deir ez-Zor might leave the group’s rival, Jabhat Fateh al- Sham, free to expand its territory around Idlib.
“You’ve got to remember,” Heras said, “Idlib is full of foreign fighters who went there to fight and to die. They have no interest in anything beyond that.”
Few would dispute the significance of breaking ISIS’s siege at Deir ez-Zor or what it must mean for the city’s defenders and inhabitants. However, though the battle may be largely won, the war still has a long way to go.