Deir al-Zor a bloody patch­work of ri­vals, al­lies vy­ing for con­trol

The Weekend Australian - - WORLD - AFP

BEIRUT: Syria’s Deir al-Zor hosts a patch­work of ri­val forces and their in­ter­na­tional part­ners, from Rus­sian-backed gov­ern­ment troops and US-backed forces to Shia mili­tias and ji­hadists.

Yes­ter­day, the US-led coali­tion said it killed at least 100 proregime fight­ers to fend off an at­tack on its own al­lies there.

Deir al-Zor (also ren­dered as Deir Ez­zor) is bor­dered by Syria’s Raqqa prov­ince to the north, Homs to the west, and Iraq to the east. The largely de­ser­tic gov­er­norate is bi­sected di­ag­o­nally by the Euphrates River.

East of the river lie the Omar oil­field, which had a pre-war out­put of 30,000 bar­rels a day, and the Conoco gas field, which pro­duced 13 mil­lion cu­bic me­tres daily be­fore 2011, ac­cord­ing to The Syria Re­port.

Some of Syria’s most in­flu­en­tial tribes, in­clud­ing the Shaay­tat and Busayra, are from Deir al-Zor.

In 2014, Is­lamic State over­ran much of the gov­er­norate and the epony­mous pro­vin­cial cap­i­tal but by late last year, the ji­hadists were los­ing to two par­al­lel of­fen­sives, one by Rus­sia-backed regime forces and the other by a US-backed al­liance.

Now, 800 Is­lamic State fight­ers at most hold tiny pock­ets of Deir al-Zor prov­ince near the Iraqi bor­der, ac­cord­ing to the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights.

With Rus­sian air cover, forces loyal to Syr­ian Pres­i­dent Bashar al-As­sad fought a months-long of­fen­sive against Is­lamic State last year. Tens of thou­sands of pro­gov­ern­ment fight­ers now con­trol the western half of the prov­ince and parts of the east­ern river bank.

They in­clude thou­sands of tribal fight­ers, as well as Iraqi and Ira­nian forces based in Albu Ka­mal near the Iraqi bor­der.

Shia Afghan mili­ti­a­men are sta­tioned in the town of Mayadeen and Hezbol­lah is scat­tered across the prov­ince.

The regime’s main in­ter­est in Deir ak-Zor, says Wash­ing­ton­based an­a­lyst Has­san Has­san, is ter­ri­to­rial. “It’s straight­for­ward for the regime: it wants to take all of Syria,” said Mr Has­san, a se­nior fel­low at the Tahrir In­sti­tute for Mid­dle East Pol­icy. To that end, it is build­ing re­la­tion­ships with tribes to lay the ground­work for a come­back, he said.

East of the Euphrates are sev­eral thou­sand fight­ers from the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces, an al­liance of Kur­dish and Arab forces.

With US-led bomb­ing raids, the SDF ousted Is­lamic State from Deir al-Zor’s east­ern half, in­clud­ing the Omar and Conoco fields.

The coali­tion’s top pri­or­ity in carv­ing out this zone is se­cur­ing the Iraqi bor­der against a pos­si­ble Is­lamic State resur­gence.

Mr Has­san said: “The SDF and the Amer­i­cans think they are best suited to fight IS and pre­vent IS from com­ing back. They don’t think the regime is strong enough to do the job.”

Last year, the US and Rus­sia agreed to a “de-con­flic­tion line” along the Euphrates River to pre­vent the sep­a­rate anti-Is­lamic State of­fen­sives they were back­ing from clash­ing, but the forces have still butted heads and the SDF ac­cuses Rus­sia of bomb­ing its forces.

In the lat­est in­ci­dent, the USled air al­liance bombed proregime fight­ers at­tack­ing SDF and coali­tion forces.

Even if it can’t mount a full-on of­fen­sive against the SDF, the regime was at­tack­ing its po­si­tions to demonstrate it still had a role to play, said Mr Has­san. “The regime un­der­stands that any day that goes by with the Amer­i­cans build­ing some­thing there, that makes it that much harder for it to go back to these ar­eas.”

The coali­tion will likely dig in its heels to pro­tect the area from fur­ther regime at­tack, while opt­ing to re­in­force the de-con­flic­tion line over es­ca­lat­ing, he said.


A Syr­ian pro-regime fighter in hos­pi­tal in Deir al-Zor city

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