Rarely has a militant group had so many enemies at once, yet Islamic State continues to thrive at the expense of the Syrian government and opposition.
Many analysts have claimed as much. However, few have acknowledged Islamic State’s military and political supremacy in Deir Ezzor, a Syrian city along a critical supply chain to Iraq. Deir Ezzor resides in the country’s easternmost governorate, well south of Syrian Kurdistan, the Turkish–Syrian border and other vulnerable regions for Islamic State.
Up to 2014, rebels controlled the countryside surrounding Deir Ezzor and encircled the city, which the Syrian government had transformed into a stronghold. The regime secured urban areas on the west bank of the Euphrates, several military bases and the Deir Ezzor Airport.
The Syrian opposition spent years working its way to the east bank of the Euphrates only to see Islamic State sweep into the region in late 2014. Since then, Syrian soldiers have garrisoned part of the city in what has become a suicide mission.
Time reported that a photographer visited parts of Deir Ezzor controlled by the Syrian government earlier this year. Though Islamic State and the Syrian government have fought to change the military dynamic, the battle has deteriorated for the latter.
The photographer wasn’t able to assess how many government soldiers formed the Syrian military contingent in Deir Ezzor. Those he met seemed determined to fight on, knowing that defeat would almost certainly result in their slaughter. The local Sunni Shaitat tribesmen, who fight with the army, are witness to ISIS’s brutality. After the tribe resisted the ISIS takeover of the local oil fields in July, the militants executed at least 700 of them, according to locals and a human-rights group. Few doubt that the fate of the defenders of Deir Ezzor would be any different if ISIS prevails.
When Islamic State captured Palmyra, it expelled the Syrian army from the nearest military base, further isolating the soldiers in Deir Ezzor. Syrian soldiers in Al Hasakah, the next-closest city with a military base, lack the ability to prepare an offensive and even struggle to protect themselves despite their nearby Kurdish allies.
Al Jazeera observed that the Syrian government lost a military base less than one kilometer from Deir Ezzor Airport in early September.
Deir Ezzor offers the Syrian government an opportunity to distract Islamic State from attacking Aleppo, Damascus, Hama and Homs in the west, where Syrian soldiers have lost territory in recent months. But the city could also be a liability.
In 2014, Islamic State killed hundreds of Syrian soldiers when it stormed three besieged military bases in Raqqa governorate, causing once-diehard regime supporters to protest their own government. If the terrorist organization massacred the defenders of Deir Ezzor Airport and its surroundings, the Syrian government would further lose credibility and legitimacy.
Islamic State’s control over much of the city also challenges whatever America hopes to achieve in the region. The U.S.-led air campaign started with the goal of defeating Islamic State in Iraq, and Arab and European airstrikes expanded to Syria only to deny Islamic State strategic depth.
Even if Western-backed rebels in the Free Syrian Army can limit Islamic State’s westward expansion — and if America’s Kurdish allies can sever its supply chains to Turkey — the terror group still has the security of Deir Ezzor.
Arab, Russian, Syrian and Western airstrikes have reached there, and American commandos even assassinated a senior Islamic State leader in the city, but the continuation of Islamist rule shows the limitations of a strategy dependent on air power.
The Syrian Democratic Forces, a coalition of Arab, Assyrian, Kurdish and Turkmen fighters who want to remove Islamic State from its de facto capital Raqqa, is an American ally with potential to advance deeper into eastern Syria. Even so, the SDF acts more as a front for the People’s Protection Units, a Kurdish paramilitary force. If they advance into Arab-majority areas, the local population may see them as occupiers.
The Syrian Arab Coalition, a subunit of the SDF, offers an Arab alternative, but how effective it will be against Islamic State with fewer than 4,000 fighters seems questionable.
For now, only the Syrian army’s garrison at Deir Ezzor Airport are in a position to fight Islamic State in its true heartland. That is, if the garrison can hold out much longer.