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.

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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.

This prompted a quick and desperate reaction from Russia, dozens of sorties of Russian warplanes were launched from Khmeimim military air base in Lattakia with well over 60 consecutive airstrikes conducted around Deir al-zour military airport, the bombardment was so intense that even ISIS affiliated “Amaq” news agency confirmed the 60 strikes. However the situation in Deir al-zour remains critical, with no hope of reinforcements and multiple attacks on different front lines, the Syrian army have no choice but to fight to the death and protect the 80,000 plus civilians in the city who are at risk if ISIS break through.

This fierce assault on Deir al Zour comes one month after ISIS launched a lightning offensive in Palmyra, Eastern Homs, advancing as far as the T4 military airport, these advances have been linked to ISIS withdrawing gradually from areas in Iraq and moving deeper into Syria, the Palmyra offensive was one such indicator. Nevertheless, unlike Palmyra, which was taken by the Islamic State in three full days of fighting, the battle for Deir al-zour will be harder and bloodier. Primarily due to the resolve of the Republican Guard commanding the city and partly due to the fact that soldiers in Deir al-zour have grown used to ISIS attacks over the past 2 years, so much so that you can find pictures of General Zaheredeen standing above the corpses of dozens of ISIS fighters on numerous different occasions. For 5 years different rebel groups, starting with the Free Syrian Army then Al Nusra front and lastly ISIS have had their fair share of attempts at taking Deir al Zour and on all occasions thus far they have failed and been beaten back.

There is no doubt that the Islamic State is fighting an all out battle to capture a new base in eastern Syria due its considerable losses in Mosul, the situation in Deir al-zour is directly linked to the advancement of the Iraqi military in Mosul, sources suggest that many of the attackers in Deir al-zour were not local fighters but special groups as opposed to fighters with knowledge of the area. These groups came directly from Nineveh in Iraq, they were battle hardened elite brigades perhaps a case of ISIS fearing infiltration or intelligence leaks from local fighters. With the “Islamic State” losing much ground in both Raqqa, its capital, and Mosul in Iraq, Deir al-zour is a natural alternative were one of the two to fall.

Deir al-zour was also scene of a controversial and sour confrontation on September 17 of last year where U.S led Coalition warplanes conducted 37 airstrikes on Syrian forces killing over 100 Syrian soldiers and wounding hundreds more, the US alleged that the act was a mistake and apologized, despite creating a diplomatic firestorm with Russia and the Syrian government. The strikes allowed ISIS to take over several points from the army around the strategic Tharda mountain range, which have been used as a platform for the latest ISIS offensive.

As the battle for Deir al-zour unfolds, it remains to be seen what the US-backed coalition will do and how these ISIS convoys entered Deir al-zour from Iraq without being attacked by Coalition warplanes. One thing is certain however, ISIS is clearly moving towards the front-lines it has against the Syrian military as it gets gradually pushed out from Iraq, and if the West wants to fight ISIS in Syria, it seems it will have to come to terms with its many differences with the Syrian government.

Featured image courtesy of BBC.