First Published: 2017-10-17

Ideology and objectives clash at Deir Ezzor
The ominous proximity between the Damascus regime and the US-sponsored SDF threatens to escalate the conflict or limit the regimes freedom to act.
Middle East Online

A Syrian boy holds the Iranian flag on a truck carrying aid provided by Iran

As the Syrian regime and its allies wrestle with the Islamic State (ISIS) for control of the oil-rich Deir Ezzor governorate more than the future of the territory is at stake.

For the elite forces of the Syrian Army, the assault on one of ISISs last remaining redoubts at Mayadin, 40km south-east of the city of Deir Ezzor, stands as one of the conflicts last opportunities to reassert themselves as a significant counter to ISISs military force.

However, heavy casualties among the Syrian Army and its allies, plus the ominous proximity between the Damascus regime and the US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) threaten to escalate the conflict or limit the regimes freedom to act. Compounding the challenges are the competing objectives of the Iranian, Russian and Hezbollah fighters.

The stakes are high. The lucrative oil fields of Deir Ezzor have done much to finance ISISs insurgency since they fell to the group in 2014. The groups positions beyond Deir Ezzor, at Abu Kamal and along the Euphrates Valley, offer ISIS the ability to protect those fields and a corridor directly into Iraq.

Though the Syrian Army is taking the lead in the attack on Mayadin, support appears to be coming from Lebanons Hezbollah, with Russia providing aerial support and Irans Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) strategy.

That the Shia forces seem to be holding back is significant. After years under various Sunni rebel occupiers, the advance into the region of the Shia allies is likely to prove unwelcome in an area Nicholas Heras, the Middle East security fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, termed, a resistance society.

Though counterattacks have dogged the regimes advance, ISISs foreign fighters have proven elusive. Its clear that ISIS has retained some kind of Praetorian Guard of foreign fighters, Heras said in a telephone interview.

However, so far what weve been seeing is mostly local militias co-opted by the group. ISIS has yet to commit its full foreign contingent and its not clear if it will. It may just have them melt away and fight elsewhere.

The strategic importance of the region is lost on no one. Control of Deir Ezzor governorate and the Euphrates Valley would give its occupier a defining voice in the conduct of the war and its settlement.

This is about beating the US to the border and theyll burn the Euphrates to do that, Heras said. If [Syrian President Bashar] Assad makes serious gains at Deir Ezzor, he can use the territory to train and station any militias there that he likes. That would provide Damascus a base from which to project strength through much of eastern Syria.

Despite the proximity of the SDF and regime forces at Deir Ezzor, it is unclear if either Assad or his allies are prepared to confront the US-sponsored force directly.

Moreover, Irans commitment to the preservation of the Assad regime, while certain in Damascus and western Syria, diminishes the farther it is from the capital.

Im not sure I really buy this idea of a land bridge, Heras said, referring to the theory of Tehrans plan for a corridor from Iran to the Mediterranean. There are satellites and surveillance along the whole route. Anything they want can already be landed at Damascus airport. Why do you need a land route?

Though a land route may not be an overriding priority for Tehran, securing western Syria remains a key objective.

Iran really isnt that bothered about Syria, just western Syria. Heras said, Western Syria is really tied into the Iranian regimes perception of what it needs to achieve in Syria. Eastern Syria is about checking the USs involvement in the war. Western Syria is about creating a clear space where it and its militias can operate and apply pressure on Israel.


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