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