IS, Syrian army face off in Deir ez-Zor

Following the withdrawal of Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel factions, the Islamic State (IS) has taken control of most neighborhoods of Deir ez-Zor.

al-monitor A boy rides a bicycle along a street in Deir ez-Zor in front of writing that reads, "The Islamic State in Iraq and Al-Sham," Feb. 16, 2014. Photo by REUTERS/Khalil Ashawi.

Topics covered

syrian crisis, syria, jabhat al-nusra, islamic state

Jul 15, 2014

For the first time since the outbreak of the Syrian crisis, heated front lines are drawn between the Syrian army and the Islamic State (IS, formerly known as the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, or ISIS). This development occurred following IS taking control over the neighborhoods of the city of Deir ez-Zor.

Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham had withdrawn yesterday [July 14] from this city, in an expected move after the breakdown of their forces in rural areas of the city last week. IS had tightened its grip on all of the cities and towns in the countryside of Deir ez-Zor as a result of the secret successive pledges of allegiance it obtained and the settlements it concluded with some brigades. This enabled it to save a large quantity of ammunition and weaponry that would have used if these settlements had not been concluded.

These pledges of allegiance and settlements broke down the morale of militants of other factions who realized that they had no chance of winning the war against IS, particularly since commanders and warlords from Jabhat al-Nusra fled Sheheil. The fall of this town was a heavy blow dealt to the alliance between the leader of Jabhat al-Nusra, Abu Mohammed al-Golani, and al-Sahwat.

Besides this moral defeat, the blockade imposed by IS on Deir ez-Zor and the fact that it cut all supply lines to all brigades stationed in the city’s neighborhoods constituted an important factor prompting the surrender of these factions. It is worth mentioning that IS took advantage of the blockade to send delegations to the leaders of these factions to negotiate with them the terms of their surrender and the handing over [of the territories under their control].

While it was reported that battalions within the city pledged allegiance to IS, several other factions and battalions affected by the events in Iraq and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor decided to distance themselves from the conflict and retire from the battle that they has nothing to do with. These factions would not have taken part in this battle if it weren’t for the dominance of the Sharia Council. The latter was not so long ago in charge of the distribution of quotas, war prizes and oil fields. But today, its leaders are either dead or on the run.

The last of these brigades were the Battalions of Mohammed affiliated with the Authenticity and Development Front. These brigades issued a statement yesterday announcing the withdrawal from the fight with IS and disclaiming the Front it used to be affiliated with for having departed from its ideology. All these conditions and factors placed the remaining leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra and Ahrar al-Sham in front of an inescapable fact that time is running out and there is no way to stay in the city more than that. Therefore, they decided to vacate their headquarters and all of their positions in the city and withdraw toward any safe area. Apparently, yesterday morning was the due date for the implementation of this decision.

Members of Ahrar al-Sham and Jabhat al-Nusra were starting to clear out their headquarters while a military group from IS was entering the city through Jisr al-Siyasa in order to take over the headquarters the factions cleared out of. The group placed its flag over Jabhat al-Nusra’s headquarters as a sign that the city is now a part of the Islamic State, as it now controls the second province after Raqqa, according to reports from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR).

However, there is one difference, which is that the Syrian army still controls some streets in the city of Deir ez-Zor while it is completely absent in Raqqa.

To the contrary of what the media published about the takeover of Deir ez-Zor being the result of the murder of the Jabhat al-Nusra emir in Deir ez-Zor, Safwan al-Hant — also known as Abu Hazem al-Balad — facts on the ground confirm that neither Hant's living nor dying would have changed the course of events and prevented the fall of the city into the hands of IS.

The real story is that the escape plan to get Hant out of the city failed drastically. IS members discovered this plot and captured Hant, who was dressed as a woman on a wheelchair, and then killed him. The pictures showed him with no beard and indeed dressed in women’s clothes. Hant's killing provoked serious rage among the members of Jabhat al-Nusra in Deir ez-Zor, who blamed Golani and the leaders of Jabhat al-Nusra for Hant's death, since they fled ahead of him and left him to face those “Karijites” by himself.

Even though IS controls most of Deir ez-Zor, the Syrian army still holds some parts of the city. The army controls most of the streets in al-Sinaa, al-Jura and al-Kosur — as opposed to reports the SOHR mentioned about IS controlling all the streets — as well as al-Rashidiya street and the streets of al-Howeqa, al-Mouwazafin and al-Jabaliya. Recently, continuous battles between the Syrian army on one hand and Jabhat al-Nusra and their allies on the other were occurring in most of these streets.

It's expected for these battles to include IS now, which is taking the place of these factions. This would create a new scenario in the Syrian war and possibly a complicated plot due to the mixture of events between eastern Syria and western Iraq. This requires an effective confrontation of IS from both borders.

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