Syria’s eastern region is a theater of ongoing military operations aimed at controlling large areas of agricultural land, borders and, most importantly, oil. Between Hassakeh, Raqqa and Deir el-Zour there are ongoing battles between Syrian troops and gunmen. The presence and practices of the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) in the region have changed the situation and threaten to ignite a battle that will be tough on all parties.
Deir el-Zour is the largest province in the eastern region, stretching from the desert to the Iraqi border in the east. The Euphrates River, the primary lifeblood of Deir el-Zour city and its countryside, cuts through the province. Gunmen control several locations in the countryside and part of the city. They control the main roads, except the one linking the city to Palmyra, and from there to Homs and Damascus.
In Deir el-Zour, Islamist factions use “Sharia committees” to control most agricultural sites and several factories, as well as oil and gas sites. Perhaps that’s the reason behind the recent clashes between them and ISIS.
The Syrian armed opposition can be described as a triangle whose sides are Jabhat al-Nusra, the Islamic Front and Jabhat al-Asala wal Tanmiya. Jabhat al-Nusra is the strongest of the three and the one with the most presence. It gets a lot of support, especially from the countryside. Jabhat al-Nusra is also considered the backbone of the “Sharia committees,” which conduct civilian affairs in areas under their control. Jabhat al-Nusra has lately attracted a large number of fighters.
The Islamic Front, especially Ahrar al-Sham (because the rest of the factions seem to have a weak presence), is focusing on preparing military operations. Jabhat al-Asala wal Tanmiya is one of the triangle’s sides and consists of several brigades, the most important of which is Bashaer al-Nasr. A few months ago, the Ahl al-Athr and Liwa Ahl al-Sunna split from that group to form Jabhat Ahl al-Sunna wal Jamaa.
ISIS fighters are few in the province, and are concentrated in specific areas where some tribes and battalions have remained loyal. ISIS’s presence is concentrated in the rural east and along the Iraqi border. ISIS has not had any role in military operations, with the exception of what they called “the invasion of good in the state of goodness.” That operation failed to reach the oil fields or the military airport, which is still in the Syrian army’s grip.
It was interesting that ISIS targeted Ahrar al-Sham with a suicide bomber in Mayadin in the countryside and that ISIS seized a Jabhat al-Nusra site, gas plants and a grain mill. That signaled the start of ISIS’s expansion in the region. Opposition sources assert that the battle will start soon because the worst has already happened with a series of bombings, the rejection of the umma initiative and al-Qaeda’s repudiation of ISIS, which gave a green light to fight ISIS.
The lesson of Raqqa: It will be harsh on everyone
The recent Raqqa battles were a harsh lesson by ISIS for the various armed groups. Various weapons were used, from tank artillery, as happened at the Tal Abyad border crossing, to sending car bombs and suicide bombers against Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic Front.
But the primary concern is about two points. First is the Syrian forces’ advance after the siege on the 17th Division was lifted, making it possible to start a battle to recover the province, which has been outside government control for nearly a year. That battle, against an opponent that uses suicide bombings and random bombings, will not be easy.
The second point is about the danger of the Euphrates Dam collapsing. Despite all the battles, the dam has not been touched. But according to activists in the region, ISIS may decide to blow it up, which will result in a water disaster that will devastate large tracts of agricultural areas on the banks of the Euphrates River.
The Kurdish card
Perhaps one of the biggest ironies in the eastern area’s military scene is that various armed factions have united against the Kurdish forces, specifically the People's Protection Units (YPG) in the north of Hassakeh. This is clear in the context of the confrontations in the north of the region and in Kurdish villages and towns. But the battles have been less intense than before, when the factions, including ISIS, didn’t hesitate to target any gathering in these areas. Jihadist groups have accused the YPG and the Democratic Union Party of partnering with the Syrian regime and of seeking to fight all the opposition factions.
Still, the regime retains wide control in Hassakeh city and in the city of Qamishli. That means, according to the jihadist groups, there’s an implicit alliance between the Kurds and the regime to defeat the opposition fighters. But the confrontation is deferred because the priority for ISIS is to get rid of all the oppositionists who are still fighting ISIS.
Meanwhile, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said in a statement that “barrel bombs are still falling on the city of Aleppo and its environs for the third week in a row.”