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Deeply Talks: The Battle Against ISIS in Deir Ezzor

As pro-government fighters inch closer to ISIS’ last Syrian stronghold, Deir Ezzor, Syria Deeply talks with Hassan Hassan of the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy about the main stakeholders involved and the battle’s potential impact on Syria’s balance of power.

Written by Alessandria Masi, Hashem Osseiran, Kim Bode Published on Read time Approx. 3 minutes
Syria conflict palmyra
A sign pointed out the routes to Palmyra-Deir Ezzor and Damascus-Iraq as Syrian regime fighters advanced in March 2017 to retake the ancient city of Palmyra from ISIS group fighters. AFP/STRINGER

BEIRUT – Coverage of the fight against the so-called Islamic State in Syria has focused on the battle for Raqqa, the militants’ former de-facto capital. In Syria Deeply’s first Deeply Talks, we shifted the focus to the upcoming battle against ISIS in Deir Ezzor, which could have a more significant impact on both the militant group and the balance of power in Syria.

Hassan Hassan, senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, joined our editors Alessandria Masi and Hashem Osseiran, to discuss the latest advances toward ISIS’ last Syrian stronghold, Deir Ezzor’s strategic importance for the main stakeholders involved and whether or not this highly anticipated battle is the militant group’s last stand in the country.

Here are a few highlights of the conversation.

Deir Ezzor is the largest city in Eastern Syria and the capital of the oil-rich Deir Ezzor governorate, which is strategically located on the shores of the Euphrates river and along the border with Iraq. ISIS seized much of Deir Ezzor in summer 2014, and reports circled in April of this year that is has moved its headquarters to Mayadin, southeast of Deir Ezzor city.

In May, the Syrian government announced a campaign to retake all of eastern Syria and pro-government forces began their triple-sided advance toward Deir Ezzor with Russian air support. Over the last few weeks, pro-government forces progressed significantly and both Russia and the U.S.-led coalition increased airstrikes in the city and the countryside.

“The situation in Deir Ezzor, when it comes to who’s more capable or qualified to liberate the province [from ISIS], is still fluid,” said Hassan. “The regime is trying to push into Deir Ezzor. The U.S. also plans to go there because they think that the Assad regime would not able to take all of Deir Ezzor, so someone has to the job for Syria in that region.”

Among the key stakeholders in the upcoming battle are Deir Ezzor’s often divided tribes, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, various Syrian rebel groups, and al-Qaida-linked forces, according to Hassan. He added that, according to his sources, the latter group is mostly based in the north, but some have begun moving south.

Asked whether the U.S. is at a disadvantage, considering that its two main allies on the ground, the SDF and Syrian Arab rebels, refuse to coordinate and have limited numbers of fighters, Hassan said: “When it comes to fighting ISIS in Deir Ezzor, the United States will be more qualified, more equipped and better positioned than the Syrian regime. The Americans have experience fighting ISIS, they know the terrain very well, they have a massive database about where ISIS is and its capabilities. The SDF also has experience fighting ISIS.

“The Syrian regime, on the other hand, wouldn’t have the manpower to liberate Deir Ezzor form ISIS,” he added.

ISIS has also made preparations for the upcoming battle. Most notably, it enforced mandatory conscription for men between the ages of 20 and 30 in Deir Ezzor.

“This is something ISIS has never done before in the history of ISIS, to force the population to join its ranks. We’ve seen before some deputization, where they relied on some local forces but in a very, very limited capacity, and that was also short-lived,” Hassan said. “This is the first time they [are doing] this in a systematic way.”

Listen to the whole call here:

Deeply Talks is a regular feature, bringing together our network of readers and expert contributors to examine the latest developments in the Syrian conflict, with a view toward the long term prospects for peace building and stability.

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