Danny Makki is a journalist and fixer who works within Syria.  I met him on my recent trip to Damascus and thought that this recent article he wrote from the front lines of Deir al-zour would be of interest to our readers.  Danny also works on a track type two initiative between Syria and the U.K. and holds a  M.A in Middle East Politics from the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.  

-Jack Murphy

Encircled, besieged and under a fierce ISIS assault, Deir al-zour is a tale of remarkable resolve from the Syrian military.

In a small enclave in eastern Syria, the Syrian military is fighting a fierce strategic battle against ISIS, the outcome of which will be crucial in the long term struggle against the “Islamic State.” Cut off, surrounded and under continuous assault since 2014, the battered government controlled area of Deir al-zour has thus far held out against large scale ISIS offensives to take over the city and the vital military airport.

Situated in the middle of a huge swathe of territory controlled by ISIS, it has been one of the most dangerous fronts in Syria and a priority for the Syrian military. As the only outpost left in eastern Syria it is of huge strategic and tactical importance, this is reflected in the quality of the Syrian forces posted in the area.

The commander of the Syrian forces in Deir al-Zor is Major General Issam Zahreddine, a cult figure in the Syrian military, he is also the commander of the 104th Airborne Brigade of the powerful Republican Guard. The Republican Guard in Deir al-zour are the elites of the elites in the Syrian military, possessing the best training, weapons and manpower, they are skilled fighters who have been tasked with a near impossible mission of holding a city which lies in the heartland of the Islamic State, and for over two years the Islamic State has failed to break through.

The army in Deir al-zour fights in rough terrain and difficult logistical conditions, they have little food, and limited weapons and ammunition, there is no electricity or water and the only way in or out is by helicopter. Even then the flights into the airport are infrequent, and the priority goes to the ammunition, food and supplies which are airdropped into the city, civilian travel in or out of Deir al-zour is almost non-existent. This has been the reality of a once-thriving city on the Euphrates ever since ISIS seized large swathes of Deir al-zor in 2014. In that time the military forces and the 80,000 plus civilian population have been exposed to suicide bomb attacks, mortar rounds, heavy artillery and a huge arsenal of sophisticated weapons which ISIS uses at will, without much respite. Since January 2015, ISIS also managed to impose a siege on the government-held parts of the city, effectively strangling supplies for the helpless residents in the area and cutting Deir al-zour off from the rest of the world.

The most recent attack started on Friday the 13th of January when ISIS militants attempted to infiltrate areas around the military airport, essentially disabling air travel and preventing any incoming aircraft from landing, in the ensuing clashes over 40 fighters were killed from both sides. On the afternoon of January 16th, ISIS continued the assault and managed to separate the military airport from the Eastern part of the city, essentially driving a wedge through the small government-held enclave, ISIS fighters claimed to have surrounded the military airport completely as well as taking control of the cemetery which overlooks the city.