Pivotal point in eastern Syria as Assad breaks key Islamic State siege

Aron Lund

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

For more than two years, the city of Deir Ezzor has been under a choking siege by so-called Islamic State, with nearly 100,000 civilians largely living off UN air drops. After Russian-brokered truces gave the Syrian government a chance to scale down operations in western Syria, its forces are now about to break that siege, relieving the city of Deir Ezzor and tipping the scales of power in eastern Syria.

 

Straddling the Euphrates river, Deir Ezzor is the largest city of eastern Syria and the capital of the eponymous province that stretches to the border of Iraq. Since 2014, most of eastern Syria has been controlled by IS, although the government of President Bashar al-Assad still holds a part of the provincial capital itself. Fighting has been fierce, with atrocities committed on both sides and much of the city devastated by regime bombardment.

 

In spring 2015, IS cut the last, insecure land routes to the city by seizing the desert towns of Sukhna and Palmyra. In September that year the jihadists began shelling Deir Ezzor’s airport, severing the air bridge that had supplied the city with food and other goods.

 

In response to the spiralling humanitarian crisis, the UN’s World Food Programme began to air drop food and emergency supplies into Deir Ezzor. Funded mostly by Western governments, the WFP recently completed its 300th mission, having parachuted nearly 6,000 metric tonnes of aid to an estimated 93,500 people inside the besieged enclave.

 

Despite the humanitarian deliveries and a separate Syrian government air bridge that provides military supplies, the enclave has slowly shrunk over the past couple of years.

 

Last January, the city’s situation appeared desperate, after IS fighters broke through army lines and cut the government-held area into two parts. In the ensuing chaos, even the WFP air drops were briefly interrupted. But with air support from the Russian government, the city’s small garrison – some 5,000 or 10,000 troops under the command of Brigadier-General Essam Zahreddine – managed to turn the battle around once again, allowing the enclave to cling to life.

 

Now, the siege is being broken.

 

Assad pivots east

 

Since late 2016, several developments have contributed to the winding-down of the war in western Syria, where most of al-Assad’s army has been pinned down by a mix of American-, Turkish-, and Arab-backed insurgent factions and jihadist groups.

 

In November 2016, the election of Donald Trump as US president deflated opposition hopes that American air power would somehow end al-Assad’s reign. The following month, Syrian government forces retook the hotly contested eastern half of Aleppo, freeing up thousands of troops for use elsewhere. Then, Russian-orchestrated peace talks in the Kazakh capital of Astana dampened the violence and culminated in a 4 May declaration of ceasefires in western Syria, which finally gave al-Assad the breathing space he needed to go after his other enemy in the east: IS.

 

After a long and lethal ping-pong battle over Palmyra, the Syrian government retook the city for the second time in March 2017. Having thus set the stage for its eastward thrust, regime forces waited until the Astana peace process had locked down their gains in the west before making their move.

 

In late May, Damascus launched a three-pronged offensive in the eastern deserts, which seemed partly designed to forestall any attempt by US-backed groups to seize IS-held areas of eastern Syria first. Pro-government troops first rushed to stake out their claims in the north, where they are in competition with a US-backed Kurdish coalition, and in the south, where a separate set of US-backed Arab rebels had sought to expand their foothold on the Iraqi border.

 

The central front then roared into action in July, when the government moved from Palmyra to retake Sukhna. IS put up a hard fight, but once regime forces had punched through to reach the city in mid-August, its defences crumbled. Although there was another 120 kilometres to go from Sukhna to Deir Ezzor, it was all empty space – nothing there to block the way except for a couple of flyspeck villages and the odd flock of grazing sheep.

 

Indeed, just days after al-Assad’s troops revved up their tank engines again in Sukhna, they are now on the verge of breaking into Deir Ezzor itself. State television reports that the army is now within three kilometres of connecting with the enclave, local authorities are jubilant, and the government is preparing to celebrate one of the most symbolic victories in its six-year war.

 

What this means

 

The reopening of the Deir Ezzor road is a strategic disaster for IS, which is now at its weakest since 2014 and seems unable to break out of an accelerating spiral of defeats.

 

Having just lost hold of Mosul in Iraq, IS is also being battered by US-backed Syrian Kurds in Raqqa, while Iraqi forces are preparing to charge into jihadi territory on their side of the border. Now, the Syrian government is about to flip Deir Ezzor from a costly defensive liability into an offensive asset, putting new strains on the jihadist group’s positions along the Euphrates. Even though IS recently began drafting civilians in a desperate bid to shore up its positions in eastern Syria, it is unlikely to be able to cope with the overwhelming force now bearing down on it from nearly every direction.

 

For the long-suffering civilian population in army-controlled areas of Deir Ezzor – roughly corresponding to the Joura and Qusour neighbourhoods, a patch of desert to their south, and an airfield to their east – this will be the end of a long nightmare. Humanitarian supplies and trade can soon start rolling by road, greatly expanding the volume and variety of goods and ending the threat of starvation they have lived under for so long.

 

For others in eastern Syria, however, this might be the start of a whole new horror. Though the government rules around 100,000 people in Deir Ezzor city, the wider province is believed to have an additional 1.2 million or so inhabitants, including those displaced from elsewhere in Syria. If the government now seeks to expand and retake the rest of the city or other towns along the Euphrates, that means the war will move into areas inhabited by these civilians, exposing them to a fresh wave of death and destruction. The UN already warned of “increasing numbers of civilian casualties” in the Deir Ezzor region due to airstrikes by the various parties to the war.

 

Yet the Syrian government’s triumphal return to the east may also sketch the contours of an endgame for the war in this part of Syria, as brute military force, Russian and Iranian support, and American acquiescence enables a restoration of the Syrian regime’s signature brand of repressive stability. Inhabitants will obviously have no say in the matter, and it would be less of a hope than a nightmare for anyone wanted by al-Assad’s feared security services – but for the many Syrians who at this point are merely looking to survive, a regime resurgence in eastern Syria may, at least, offer the faint glimpse of a future without war.

 

al/ag