Syr­ian city starts re­cov­ery from ISIS

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - INTERNATIONAL -

DEIR EL-ZOUR, Syria — Deir el-Zour is ris­ing from the ashes, even as rounds of ma­chine-gun fire can still be heard on the out­skirts of town as Syr­ian gov­ern­ment troops push out the re­main­ing Is­lamic State fight­ers. Gov­ern­ment forces now con­trol about twothirds of the city, while parts of the cen­ter and east are still dom­i­nated by ex­trem­ists.

Gov­ern­ment forces broke the Is­lamic State group’s lengthy siege on Syria’s largest eastern city ear­lier this month in a ma­jor of­fen­sive. Now, tens of thou­sands of res­i­dents can go out and buy food and other items.

On a scorch­ing af­ter­noon in Deir el-Zour, two dozen people pa­tiently lined up at Rashid Izghair’s small shop, which only opened a few days ear­lier, to get ba­sic sup­plies: milk, pasta and canned food. They had been de­prived of such items for nearly three years.

Dozens of trucks car­ry­ing food, medicine and fuel have been ar­riv­ing in the city, though much more is still needed.

“Dur­ing those years our fam­i­lies who lived un­der the siege did not eat fruit or veg­eta­bles,” said Mo­hammed Ibrahim Samra, Deir el-Zour’s mayor. “[Is­lamic State] ter­ror­ists blocked all the roads lead­ing into the city and cut off all in­fra­struc­ture. We had no elec­tric­ity, no gas or fuel all this time.”

Late on Fri­day, fight­ing was on­go­ing out­side the city as Syr­ian troops cap­tured new ar­eas along the west bank of the river in­clud­ing the town of Ayash.

Forces loyal to Pres­i­dent Bashar As­sad have been cap­tur­ing ar­eas around the coun­try un­der the cover of Rus­sian airstrikes since Moscow joined the war in September 2015. Break­ing the siege of Deir elZour was As­sad’s big­gest vic­tory since De­cem­ber, when his forces cap­tured eastern neigh­bor­hoods of the north­ern city of Aleppo, Syria’s largest and once its com­mer­cial cen­ter.

The aim of the gov­ern­ment ap­pears to be to reach the bor­der with Iraq to the east — which would boost Iran’s in­flu­ence in the re­gion — as Iraqi forces gain ground on the other side of the bor­der against the ex­trem­ists.

Rus­sia and Iran have been As­sad’s main back­ers since the con­flict be­gan in March 2011 with anti-gov­ern­ment protests and later mor­phed into an all­out war. It is still not clear whether Syr­ian troops will be able to achieve their goal of reach­ing the Iraqi bor­der on the north­ern part of Deir elZour as U.S.-backed fight­ers are march­ing on the eastern side of the Euphrates River un­der the cover of airstrikes by the U.S.-led coali­tion.

Deir el-Zour prov­ince is the last main strong­hold of the Is­lamic State group, which con­trols towns and vil­lages along the Euphrates all the way to the Iraqi bor­der town of Qaim.

Dis­man­tling the siege at Deir el-Zour on Sept. 5 brought re­lief to tens of thou­sands of civil­ians trapped in four gov­ern­ment-con­trolled neigh­bor­hoods and a nearby air base that had been sur­rounded by the ex­trem­ists from all sides since Jan­uary 2015. The Syr­ian gov­ern­ment es­ti­mates about 70,000 people have sur­vived on er­ratic air drops of food and sup­plies dur­ing the siege.

In the first visit by for­eign jour­nal­ists to the city, an As­so­ci­ated Press re­porter trav­eled to Deir el-Zour on Fri­day on a trip or­ga­nized by the Rus­sian De­fense Min­istry.

The streets of the cap­i­tal of this oil-rich eastern prov­ince also called Deir el-Zour looked de­serted Fri­day af­ter­noon with Syr­ian troops pa­trolling the area. Be­cause of fuel short­ages, cars are a rare sight, and ma­chine-gun fire is au­di­ble in many neigh­bor­hoods, a re­minder of just how close the Is­lamic State fight­ers still are.

The siege turned even ba­sic food or goods into a lux­ury. Res­i­dents had to sub­sist on air drops de­liv­ered by in­ter­na­tional or­ga­ni­za­tions and the Syr­ian gov­ern­ment. The hospi­tal’s chief doc­tor, Khalil Al­san, said fuel short­ages were so se­vere the am­bu­lance ser­vice had to be shut down.

But now, the city and its res­i­dents — trau­ma­tized by the lengthy siege — are slowly com­ing back to life.

A mar­ket sprang up in the city cen­ter where lo­cals sell sec­ond-hand goods or the scarce pro­duce they grew in their yards off pic­nic ta­bles or in makeshift tents made from metal rods and tar­pau­lin. On a re­cent day, shop­pers stopped by to drink lemon­ade and eat falafel; el­derly men play cards on the street.

A few blocks away, two dozen people lined up at Izghair’s tiny gro­cery store. He said prac­ti­cally all of the city’s shops were closed dur­ing the siege be­cause own­ers sim­ply had no sup­plies to sell.

Izghair’s two fe­male em­ploy­ees dis­pensed the shop’s scarce se­lec­tion of goods — milk, pasta, canned food and de­ter­gent — to cus­tomers who anx­iously peeked into a small glass win­dow of the store.

A man stand­ing out­side the shop, wait­ing for his turn to buy, took note of even th­ese mod­est of­fer­ings.

“We had noth­ing be­fore. Now there is aid that is dis­trib­uted for free and there is also stuff in shops,” he said.

AP

People line up Fri­day out­side a shop in Deir el-Zour, Syria, that re­cently opened after Syr­ian forces broke an Is­lamic State siege.

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