Syria’s forgotten siege: The noose tightens around Deir Ezzor

How Islamic State advances will test Trump, Putin, and al-Assad

Aron Lund

Freelance journalist and analyst specialising on Syria, and regular IRIN contributor

The recent advance of the so-called Islamic State (IS) through Syrian army lines in besieged Deir Ezzor has deepened a humanitarian crisis and created a complex problem for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, the Russians, and the new US president, Donald Trump.

A month after his army retook the rebel stronghold in eastern Aleppo, al-Assad has plenty of reasons for optimism. Recent peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana produced no agreement, but they signalled the growing clout of his Russian ally and the shrinking ambitions of his Turkish enemy. Syrians and their international backers will soon head for another round of negotiations in Geneva, to which al-Assad looks certain to arrive with a strong hand to play.

Yet, the Syrian leader does have some serious chinks in his armour. Some are structural and well known, such as his over-dependence on foreign support or the terrible state of the Syrian economy. More immediately though, al-Assad’s forces are taking serious blows in the east of the country, at the hands of IS.

The jihadi group has been through a rough couple of years and is relishing a chance to show its claws against al-Assad, whose army has been distracted by events elsewhere. In December, when the Syrian army was tied up in eastern Aleppo and Eastern Ghouta, a besieged area on the outskirts of Damascus, IS snatched back Palmyra, the ancient desert town it previously held between May 2015 and March 2016. Then it attacked Deir Ezzor, the Syrian government’s last stronghold in the borderlands near Iraq, throwing al-Assad’s eastern flank into disarray.

The war for Deir Ezzor

Already in mid-2011, after a few months of protests, Deir Ezzor had begun to slide into armed insurgency. By 2013, the Syrian government was bleeding territory in Deir Ezzor to a coalition of mostly Islamist rebel groups. However, by structuring military defences and government services around a cluster of neighbourhoods in the western parts of the city, al-Assad’s forces were able to regroup and maintain control over most of the local population. If he ever hoped to regain eastern Syria, al-Assad needed to keep control over Deir Ezzor. As long as the insurgency was divided among uncoordinated factions, the conflict seemed winnable.

But one day, it wasn’t. By late 2013, the rebel outfits of eastern Syria were disintegrating one by one, their manpower and equipment cannibalised by a monster grown in their midst: IS. When the group captured Mosul in June 2014 and declared itself a “caliphate”, large swathes of western Iraq fell to its forces and, in a lethal game of dominoes, eastern Syria soon came tumbling down too.

IS rampaged through the region, seizing rebel towns and army bases and massacring their defenders, but it ran aground at Deir Ezzor. For more than two years, the group has failed to crack the city’s defences, but it has instead imposed a suffocating siege, forcing al-Assad to resupply the enclave by air, at great cost to his cash-strapped government.

In September 2015, the airport in Deir Ezzor came within range of IS rockets, which effectively prevented fixed-wing cargo aircraft from landing. Since then, all transport has been conducted by helicopters, which swoop in and out of the city at considerable risk.

Siege warfare

After five years of non-stop urban combat, much of Deir Ezzor lies in ruins. The remaining inhabitants of the city, which had a pre-war population of around 250,000, have suffered tremendously, particularly since IS banned commercial and humanitarian transports into regime-held areas in an attempt to starve them into submission – just as the Syrian government has done elsewhere in the country, in places like Madaya, Yarmouk, and eastern Aleppo.

In January 2016, the United Nations put the number of civilians in army-controlled Deir Ezzor at approximately 200,000, more than two thirds of them women and children. Recent UN reports say the figure is closer to 93,500 people. For comparison, the rebel-held enclave in eastern Aleppo had around 160,000 inhabitants before it fell in December 2016, according to recent UN estimates.

Even beyond IS shelling and the corrupt and violent rule of al-Assad’s government, life in besieged Deir Ezzor has been grim. Electricity was cut in 2015 and though locally extracted oil and a makeshift refinery help fuel generators, they cannot continuously operate the full baseline infrastructure, such as water pumps.

A year ago, according to the UN, drinking water was available only for three hours every seventh day. Some edible crops can be grown on the banks of the Euphrates, and other supplies are flown in by helicopter and perhaps smuggled across front lines, but many inhabitants struggle to feed their families.

In early 2016, meat sold at four times the cost in Damascus and the street price of bread was eight times higher. By then, a majority of inhabitants survived on a diet of bread and water only, and the UN had received reports of 15-20 deaths from starvation, though they could not be independently verified. To stave off disaster, the World Food Programme established an air bridge in April 2016 and has since conducted nearly 180 aid drops.

January 2017 collapse

Recently, the situation has deteriorated significantly. Two weeks into the new year, IS advances cut the government enclave in two. Airdrops were halted on 15 January, which sent food prices skyrocketing, although WFP said on Twitter that the deliveries had been restarted to an alternative site on 29 January.  

Worse, the lack of fuel has shut down the water pumps, leaving tens of thousands of civilians with nothing to drink but untreated river water from the Euphrates.

Damascus is reportedly sending reinforcements to Deir Ezzor and Russian bombers are pounding IS positions day and night. But so far, they do not seem to have made much progress. For all of Moscow’s boasts about high-tech precision strikes, the Russian Air Force still seems to depend mainly on old-fashioned unguided bombs, albeit a lot of them.

With that kind of support, al-Assad may turn the battle around, especially if the ceasefire that was elaborated upon in Astana holds and allows him to shift resources further east. But it is far from certain. IS may be able to prevent major reinforcements from reaching the city, and air superiority alone will not suffice to hold the city if al-Assad's foothold on the ground starts to slip.

The enemy of my enemy?

This raises a number of questions for the new US president, Donald Trump. From Washington’s point of view, the fall of Deir Ezzor is clearly undesirable: it would hand IS a symbolic victory while also freeing up its manpower for use against US-backed Kurdish or Iraqi fighters elsewhere. In the longer term, it would complicate American strategy even more, since it is difficult to envisage the Kurdish-dominated, US-backed coalition known as the Syrian Democratic Forces moving far enough into Arab lands to reach the city.

While US military is already opportunistically striking IS targets around Deir Ezzor, it could of course make much more of a difference if it chose to. But it has no way of hurting IS in Deir Ezzor without helping al-Assad, and that was always seen as unacceptable under Barack Obama’s presidency. For years, US policy in Syria has been to isolate the Syrian president and squeeze him out of power, not to provide close air support to his army. Any move to help al-Assad with air strikes would complicate ties to Syrian rebels or regional states, and it could cause a stir in US politics as well.

It would also likely be a thankless task. Despite thousands of US air strikes against IS in Syria, al-Assad and his allies still accuse Washington of secretly conspiring with the group. If the US were to send its air force to support vulnerable regime positions in eastern Syria, a likely outcome would be that al-Assad could use more of his own military to pummel rebels in western Syria – including US-backed groups.

Nevertheless, during the election campaign of 2016, then-candidate Trump indicated that he would change the Syria policy of the United States. While he never produced a clear plan, Trump repeatedly hinted that he wants to scale down the campaign against al-Assad and focus more on IS, possibly in collaboration with Russian President Vladimir Putin. That still seems to be the policy. In his first phone call with Putin, now-president Trump promised to unite their forces against “international terrorism,” which likely refers to IS.

If Trump does indeed wish to order a strategic shift in Syria and the strengthening of al-Assad is no longer viewed as an obstacle to joint action with the Russians, then keep an eye on eastern Syria – Deir Ezzor may well be the place for that collaboration to begin.

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(TOP PHOTO: WFP airdrop. WFP/File)