As U.S. forces bomb strategic points in Kurdistan, part of an attempt to help Peshmerga forces beat back the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), the Sunni militant group continues to make rapid gains in Syria. On the battlefield, ISIS has taken advantage of rebel discord and its own massive cache of weapons from Iraq to cut through Deir Ezzor with a speed that has surprised analysts.
Since last year, ISIS has been in control of Raqqa, the province from which it launched its offensive on the Iraqi city of Mosul this June. Should it take Deir Ezzor, it will be in undisputed control of eastern Syria, giving it the momentum it needs to continue advances now under way in Hassakeh and Aleppo provinces.
We asked Hassan Hassan, an analyst at Abu Dhabi research center the Delma Institute and a columnist for the National newspaper, to weigh in on how ISIS played on the fractiousness of Deir Ezzor’s rebels, and used its sizable weapons cache, to make such rapid gains.
Syria Deeply: What are the gains ISIS has made in Deir Ezzor since June?
Hassan Hassan: You can look at this chronologically after the takeover of Mosul and large swaths of Iraq. After Iraq, ISIS has massive stockpiles of weapons, and it also has the momentum in terms of fear and morale.
Before Mosul, Syrian rebels in Deir Ezzor were close to beating back ISIS in many areas of the province. But when ISIS came back over from Iraq, it seems like they coordinated with certain rebel groups and individuals, especially top leaders, to infiltrate certain areas, especially areas that would otherwise be resistant to ISIS. These groups include Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups in Mo Hassan. Its residents have historically been recruited into the Syrian army, so there’s a perception that they are secular. It earned it the nickname “Little Moscow,” because of its affinity to the regime. ISIS, when it went back to Deir Ezzor, took it in no time, which surprised a lot of people.
Another surprise was Shuhail, which had been perceived as such a rebel stronghold that it would have been difficult to stage even regime or foreign intervention. But ISIS stormed the village and killed and displaced many of its residents, and then took it. And Jabhat al-Nusra disappeared. It was shocking that it disappeared so quickly.
The takeover of Abu Kamal wasn’t surprising because it was on the border and ISIS was already controlling the Iraqi side.
The most interesting thing about these advances was that they took place in areas that would be otherwise resistant to ISIS. They were hostile to ISIS, either because they were tribal militias who have interest in oil fields they didn’t want to give up, or because they were part of Nusra, or because they didn’t accept the ISIS ideology. But ISIS swept right though.
Syria Deeply: How was it able to do this so quickly?
Hassan: There are a few factors. There’s the momentum from Iraq, and so much fear because this group had the ability to take on the Iraqi army and defeat it. So no one wanted to face down this group on their own.
In line with that, the opposition or these militias in Deir Ezzor were divided among themselves. They don’t work with each other all the time, they’re not in accordance with each other and they didn’t put enough emphasis on winning local hearts and minds, so they were often detached from their communities. ISIS played on these divisions and took over these villages one by one until they had swept them. So there’s the division of the local communities, the momentum from Iraq and then the third factor is the sheer weapons stockpile they got from Iraq. That’s a big one.
Syria Deeply: What makes Deir Ezzor easy to control?
Hassan: Deir Ezzor is an isolated province. When Maliki was in control, he kept tight control over the borders; it wasn’t like the porous Turkey or Jordan borders. So that’s on one side. Then from the other side, ISIS controlled Raqqa and other groups controlled Hassakeh. So there wasn’t much communication between the outside world, and the opposition in exile, and the rebels in Deir Ezzor. Rebels on the ground had been appealing to the opposition for many months before ISIS took over. They saw it coming and fought back, but they couldn’t hold on for long.
Syria Deeply: Where is Jabhat al-Nusra? What is the jihadi picture on the ground?
Hassan: Nusra is now nowhere to be seen in Deir Ezzor. It has disappeared completely. ISIS is now allowing any group to fight and keep their weapons, as long as they have declared their allegiance to ISIS.
In Deir Ezzor city, there are groups that have pledged allegiance to ISIS, working alongside ISIS. In some areas, ISIS has allowed village militias to keep their own small weapons and command their own checkpoints. This happens in areas that ISIS trusts are safe and will remain unquestionably under ISIS control.
They have a new strategy of allowing certain groups, especially those who receive support from foreign countries, or the SNC, to make a deal to control their own areas, as long as they are organically linked to ISIS in a way that will keep them loyal to it. I wrote about the leader of Liwa al-Ansar, a major group in Abu Kamal, who has relatives in ISIS in Iraq. Because of this connection, he is organically attached to ISIS and will be loyal to them even if his rank and file has other opinions.
In some areas that ISIS doesn’t trust to be totally secure, checkpoints are manned by fighters from neighboring ISIS loyalist groups. You could say that all the groups in Deir Ezzor are now under some control of ISIS.
Now it would very difficult for groups that want to rebel against ISIS to coordinate a province-wide rebellion. That’s because part of the ISIS strategy is to divide non-loyalist areas. If they don’t trust an area, they bring in loyalist forces from other areas to control it. I am hearing ISIS is planning to recruit men into groups that have pledged allegiance to them, because they don’t trust them, don’t trust their motives. So they want to embed their own foreign jihadists into these groups, so that they can control them in the long run. It’s very smart.
Answers have been edited.