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Kirill Semenov

Director of the Centre of Islamic Research at the Institute of Innovative Development

The breaking of the blockade of the city of Deir ez-Zor was an important milestone in the anti-terrorist operation against Islamic State (IS) conducted by the Syrian Arab Army and the Russian Aerospace Forces. In the foreseeable future, reclaiming areas of the city that are still controlled by IS will draw a line under this stage of the war against the “Caliphate.” In all likelihood, IS will be forced to transition exclusively to guerrilla tactics and sabotage. The liberation of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa will deprive IS of the opportunity to control major cities, turning it once again into just another clandestine terrorist organization.

Operation Jazeera Storm, the aim of which is to remove IS from the left bank of the Euphrates, should prevent the formation of a Shiite corridor between Lebanon and Iran through Iraq and Syria. In addition to being a channel through which to funnel help to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the corridor could serve as a passageway allowing the fighters move freely between the countries, clearing the way for reinforcements to be brought in from pro-Iranian groups in Iraq and Syria. This could create a threat of tensions escalating and peace agreements collapsing. However, preventing the creation of this corridor is not the only valid reason for not allowing IS forces into the eastern Euphrates. It is here where the oil and gas bearing areas of the Deir ez-Zor basin currently controlled by IS are located.

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The breaking of the siege of the city of Deir ez-Zor was an important milestone in the anti-terrorist operation against Islamic State conducted by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and the Russian Aerospace Forces. In the foreseeable future, reclaiming areas of the city that are still controlled by IS — along with the incontrovertible fall of Raqqa, where the operation being carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) with the support of the international coalition — will draw a line under this stage of the war against the “Caliphate.” In all likelihood, IS will be forced to transition exclusively to guerrilla tactics and sabotage. The liberation of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa will deprive IS of one of its last “attributes of statehood” — namely, the opportunity to control major cities — turning it once again into just another clandestine terrorist organization that hides in underground bunkers in the middle of the desert.

At the same time, IS is carrying out counter-strikes in the areas of the city that the SAA has not managed to bring completely under its control. This is why talk of a resounding military victory over Islamic State in Deir ez-Zor is premature. However, we cannot rule out the possibility that IS will try to save as many of its numbers as possible this time and relinquish the areas of Deir ez-Zor that are still under its control without too much resistance. The number of IS jihadists in the city itself, according to coalition intelligence, is around 2500 men — more than they have in Raqqa. In total, IS has around 6,000–8,000 fighters on both banks of the Euphrates, from Mayadin to Abu Kamal.

Nevertheless, the very fact that the blockade has been broken — even if control over the entire city has not been established — is incredibly important from a humanitarian standpoint. Tens of thousands of people living in Deir ez-Zor will now have uninterrupted access to food and water.

The liberation of Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa will deprive IS of one of its last “attributes of statehood” — namely, the opportunity to control major cities.

Deir ez-Zor fell under a blockade by Islamic State in April 2014, although the SAA military post had been surrounded earlier. Rebel forces surrounded Deir ez-Zor back in late 2013, seizing half of the city and the entire province. But there was no talk of a harsh blockade at the time. Despite the fighting, the people of Deir ez-Zor were somehow able to move between regions controlled by the rebels and those controlled by the government. The first attempt by IS (then ISIS) to capture the city took place in February 2014, but it was successfully repelled by rebel forces. A month later, militants of the self-proclaimed “Caliphate” managed to force their way into the areas of the city controlled by the opposition. Deir ez-Zor was thus divided into three sections — one controlled by IS, another by the rebels and the third by the SAA. A total blockade was achieved in July 2014, when IS seized the part of the city held down by the rebels and shut off the main road. Several of the moderate opposition groups that are currently operating out of Al Waleed and Eastern Qalamoun in the Syrian Desert retreated there from Deir ez-Zor under pressure from IS.

Map of oil and gas fields

Throughout the entire period, from late 2013 up until September 2017, the only way that the SAA military post received supplies was through cargo jettisoned from military aircraft. And from mid-2014, the issue of providing food and medicines for the people living in the regions held by pro-government forces has loomed large. The humanitarian aid provided by the UN since early 2013, when the SAA military base was not yet completely blocked, helped somewhat. Deliveries continued almost continuously, with short interruptions caused by intense fighting, for the whole period of the siege. However, the assistance provided by both the Syrian government and the UN proved to be insufficient and the local population was forced to move into areas occupied by IS. Some were later able to flee to Al-Hasakah province controlled by Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) and Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) fighters and even make it to Idlib. When the siege was broken, around 80,000 citizens remained in Deir ez-Zor.

Against the backdrop of the breaking of the Deir ez-Zor blockade and the commencement of fighting in the city, the so-called Deir ez-Zor Military Council (part of the SDF), in which the local Arab forces are widely represented, launched an offensive against IS on the left (northeast) bank of the Euphrates with the support of the U.S.-led coalition. Thus, operation Jazeera Storm was set in motion on September 9, its goal being to remove IS from the left bank of the Euphrates. It should also lead to the establishment of control over the section of the Syria-Iraq border that has the most favourable conditions for transport corridors to be set up, given that there is a fairly developed network of hard-surface roads there. What is more, pro-Iranian Shiite People’s Mobilization Forces (PMF) are active on this stretch of the border. Thus, operation Jazeera Storm should prevent the formation of the so-called Shiite corridor between Lebanon and Iran through Iraq and Syria. In addition to being a channel through which to funnel help to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the corridor could serve as a passageway allowing the fighters move freely between the countries, clearing the way for reinforcements to be brought in from pro-Iranian groups in Iraq and Syria. This could create a threat of tensions escalating and peace agreements collapsing.

Damascus has been unable to keep a tight rein on the Shiite forces, which, coupled with the fact that these forces are firmly embedded in the same camp as Russia, means that Moscow will have to exert additional efforts to minimize the threat of conflict situations between the Shiites and the pro-American SDF.

Preventing the creation of this corridor is not the only valid reason for not allowing IS forces into the eastern Euphrates. It is here where the oil and gas bearing areas of the Deir ez-Zor basin currently controlled by IS are located. While this part of the basin covers both banks of the Euphrates, the richest deposits are to be found on the eastern (left) bank, which the SDF has “called dibs on,” declaring it a goal of their operation. The highest-quality oil mined in Syria is located in the Deir ez-Zor basin. In turn, the Damascus government was able to re-establish control over the Palmyra and Shaer oil and gas fields during previous operations in Homs and Hama. The Kurds are already exploiting the deposits of the Mesopotamian and Sinjar basins, also taken from the hands of IS.

In light of the offensive operations being carried out in opposite directions by the SAA and the SDF, the Russians and the Americans agreed on a “de-confliction line” between the government forces and the SDF. The line runs along the Euphrates. However, given the presence of pro-Iranian Shiite and Palestine forces both inside the Deir ez-Zor military post itself and within the pro-Assad forces that are leading the offensive, it is possible that isolated incidents and acts of provocation could take place, including attempts by pro-Iranian units to cross to the left bank of the Euphrates.

In all likelihood, the movement of the SDF and the SAA (and other forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad) into the Syrian part of the Euphrates will mean the end of Islamic State’s organized resistance and the withdrawal underground of its remaining fighters. At the same time, a new line of confrontation could appear along the Euphrates between the pro-American SDF on the one hand and pro-Iranian forces eager to carve out a “Shiite corridor” between Iraq and Syria on the other. While a small section of the border is already controlled by government troops, the lack of roads and the complete absence border control by Shiite forces on the Iraqi side of the border means that the corridor can hardly be considered complete. Damascus has been unable to keep a tight rein on the Shiite forces, which, coupled with the fact that these forces are firmly embedded in the same camp as Russia, means that Moscow will have to exert additional efforts to minimize the threat of conflict situations between the Shiites and the pro-American SDF.

The best solution would be that proposed in Southern Syria, namely, for pro-Iranian groups to withdraw to 40km from the Israeli and Jordanian borders. It may also be possible in Eastern Syria to reach an agreement whereby Shiite troops withdraw from the Euphrates, with the positions being transferred exclusively to the control of the SAA. Border control at the Iraqi side should be carried out by units of the regular Iraqi army, with People’s Mobilization Forces withdrawing from the area. The problem, however, remains the absence of any effective levers for influencing pro-Iranian groups.


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