Alwaght – Located on the Euphrates River’s banks in the extreme east of the country, Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province shares borders with Iraq from east and south. The province is of great archaeological significance, with its history dating back to the 7,000 B.C.
Deir ez-Zor is home to a population of about 1,239,000, with the Sunni Muslims accounting for the majority. Shiite minority also can be found in some parts of the province like Hatla village.
Moreover, in Deir ez-Zor’s Dora Abous village on the Euphrates coast there are remnants of a place that many archeologists believe was the world’s oldest synagogue. The historical proofs suggest that Armenians also inhabited the city. The province includes three cities of Deir ez-Zor, Abu Kamal, and Mayadin, as well as 11 towns and 128 villages.
Deir ez-Zor city, located next to the Iraqi borders, is divided in two northern and southern parts by the Euphrates. Proximity to the biggest al-Qaeda base on the Iraqi borders, tribal social structure, and contacts of the youths of the province with the Persian Gulf Arab states always made Deir ez-Zor center of radicalism in the country, and of course the hub to rise and nurture of terrorist groups in eastern Syria.
Promotion of Wahhabism in this part of Syria in the beginning of the devastating conflict in the country made large parts of the province embrace ISIS terrorist group right after its emergence and led to later seizure of province from the government forces. Currently, the army only holds the main airport as well as some parts of province in Deir ez-Zor city. Even these remaining parts are encircled by ISIS, and the Syrian government provides food to people and ammunition to the army units there through air dropping. Al parts of the province, excluding northern borders that link Deir ez-Zor to Hasakah province, as well as Abu Khashab village, are now held by the terrorists of ISIS.
In the initial stages of the conflict, the importance of the Deir ez-Zor’s strategic airport, military bases, and ammunition storehouses emboldened the Syrian government to send a number of its special forces units to province to protect t the facilities at any cost.
ISIS transition to Deir ez-Zor
The heavy blow the ISIS was dealt in northern Syria and the recapture of Aleppo which stripped the terrorist group of its key stronghold in northwestern Syria triggered escape of many top commanders from Raqq to Deir ez-Zor. The withdrawal was also prompted by losses of the ISIS in Aleppo’s Al-Bab town, northern and eastern outskirts of Raqqa, and the major operation by the Iraqi army that took back from ISIS the city of Mosul, the capital of Iraq’s Nineveh province. All these blows made the terrorist group seek new stronghold as alternative.
The terrorist group not only moved its commanders to Deir ez-Zor but also relocated hundreds of trucks of ammunition and other military equipment to the border city. Families of hundreds of foreign ISIS terrorists have been removed from the front lines like Mosul and Raqqa and transferred to Mayadin, Abu Kamal, and around Euphrates banks in Deir ez-Zor.
What compounds the Deir ez-Zor battle is its rich oil and gas reserves as well as the strategic position that makes it crucial for an array of parties. Beside ISIS and the Syrian army, al-Nusra Front, also a terrorist group fighting the Syrian government, is pressing for seizure of Deir ez-Zor oilfields and Abu Kamal crossing on the border with Iraq. Beside oilfields capture, by getting toehold al-Nusra wants to steer clear of fall of its posts to ISIS in the area. Ideological gaps between ISIS, led by Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and al-Nusra Front, led by Abu Muhammad al-Julani whom was approvd by the al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, resulted in a power struggle that called their attention to fight for eastern Syria and particularly Deir ez-Zor.
But Syria’s east is not scene to a rivalry only between ISIS, al-Nusra, and the government forces who want to tighten grip there. An Iran-backed coalition of pro-Syrian forces is taking on US-supported Syrian opposition militants in the area. Both of them are busy carrying out operations in the east in bid for further land captures.
Washington sees Moscow as partner to joint Damascus-Tehran efforts to foil the American plans in the east. Earlier, Syria’s al-Watan daily reported of joint Syria-Russian campaign to boost presence in eastern Syria deserts to reclaim Deir ez-Zor. On the other side, news reports also suggest that Jordan was leading efforts to coordinate the Russian stances with the US in the east for de-escalation zones. But the Americans still seek establishment of a safe zone on the Syrian borders with Jordan that will excuse additional attacks on the pro-Damascus forces advancing to retake border areas from Washington-backed militants.
Iran’s Deir ez-Zor missile strikes
In early June, ISIS conducted a pair of terrorist attacks in Tehran, one hitting the parliament and the other the mausoleum of Imam Khomeini, the late founder of the Islamic Republic. In retaliation, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) on June 18 targeted ISIS sites in Deir ez-Zor from a distance of about 650 kilometers with six mid-range ballistic missiles fired from missile bases in northwestern provinces of Kurdistan and Kermanshah.
Presently, the Syrian army and its backers are pressing towards the Deir ez-Zor borders to break the siege in place for 3 years. Operation to enter Deir ez-Zor from eastern and southern Idlib and west of Raqqa is underway.