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 ISIS’s last remaining redoubts at Mayadin, 40km south-east of the city of Deir Ezzor, stands as one of the conflict’s last opportunities to reassert themselves as a significant counter to ISIS’s 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 regime’s 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 ISIS’s insurgency since they fell to the group in 2014. The group’s 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 Lebanon’s Hezbollah, with Russia providing aerial support and Iran’s 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 regime’s advance, ISIS’s foreign fighters have proven elusive. “It’s clear that ISIS has retained some kind of Praetorian Guard of foreign fighters,” Heras said in a telephone interview.
“However, so far what we’ve been seeing is mostly local militias co-opted by the group. ISIS has yet to commit its full foreign contingent and it’s 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 they’ll 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, Iran’s commitment to the preservation of the Assad regime, while certain in Damascus and western Syria, diminishes the farther it is from the capital.
“I’m not sure I really buy this idea of a land bridge,” Heras said, referring to the theory of Tehran’s 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 isn’t that bothered about Syria, just western Syria.” Heras said, “Western Syria is really tied into the Iranian regime’s perception of what it needs to achieve in Syria. Eastern Syria is about checking the US’s involvement in the war. Western Syria is about creating a clear space where it and its militias can operate and apply pressure on Israel.”