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Anti-ISIS Strategy Threatens to Stoke Continued Instability in Deir Ez-Zor

  • Kalam Admin

    Associate Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme, Chatham House

After signing de-escalation agreements in many areas of Syria, the international community and the anti-ISIS coalition, in particular Russia, are looking to expel ISIS from areas it controls in eastern Syria, most notably Deir Ez-Zor governorate – the group’s last remaining stronghold in Syria. But the policies pursued by both the international coalition and Russia to achieve this are likely to cause continuing conflict and instability in Deir Ez-Zor long after ISIS is defeated.

The return of the Syrian regime

Prior to the start of the battle for Deri Ez-Zor, Russia and the United States came to an arrangement dividing the governate in two, with the area south of the Euphrates under the control of the regime and its Russian allies, and the area to the river’s north, or ‘the eastern Euphrates’ as some call it, controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), the United States’ most notable ally. Through the Akirshi agreement, signed on 20 June, the SDF handed over the eastern and southern Raqqa countryside to the regime so that it could be used later in the battle to expel ISIS from Deir Ez-Zor. The regime was able to advance to areas south of the river and break the more than three year siege of its troops in the western district of Deir Ez-Zor city with Russian support, seizing control of all of the governorate’s western countryside as well as Raqqa’s eastern countryside, and is now trying to expand east into the city.

The areas south of the river contain the governorate’s most important urban centres – including Deir Ez-Zor city, Al-Bukamal, Mayadin, Al-Asharah, Al-Quriyah, Al-Muhassan and Khurayta – containing the bulk of the area’s population and, importantly, the most rebellious areas since the revolution began in 2011. Deir Ez-Zor’s residents continue to see the regime as their main enemy, questioning how the same regime that killed thousands of Syrians, destroyed their homes, and is the reason for their displacement, can bring stability to the area. The regime’s return to these areas forces a large segment of the population that regards itself in the opposition camp to stay away for fear of arrest and retribution, although anti-regime factions continue to operate there.

Marginalization of the Free Syrian Army

The United States’ Deir Ez-Zor policy, particularly its reliance on the SDF and its insistence on excluding local Free Syrian Army-affiliated military factions, is another factor that is likely to continue to destabilize the governante.

After years spent supporting and training these factions in preparation for the battle of Deir Ez-Zor, the United States has abandoned its allies in the Syrian Badia (eastern desert). The United States even threatened to cut off support for these factions if they do not stop fighting the regime, and demanded that they withdraw to Jordan and leave their areas of control in the Syrian Badia and the eastern Suwayda countryside to regime forces. This has eliminated any hope these factions had of advancing from the south – the preferred option for advancing towards the governorate and a point of consensus for Deir Ez-Zor’s local factions as the ideal military front for an advance, for liberating the governorate, and for cutting off the regime and preventing its return.

The United States gave the formerly US-backed local factions of Deir Ez-Zor, most notably Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra,  Jaish Usud al-Sharqiya, and Quwwat al-Nukhbat, an ultimatum: either participate in the battle to liberate Deir Ez-Zor under the umbrella of the SDF or be excluded from it altogether.

Each of these factions refused to take part in the battle under the SDF umbrella for different reasons, but mainly because the SDF had handed over several areas in southeast Raqqa to the regime, with which it has an ambiguous relationship. Violations committed against Arabs, including forcible displacement, arrests, and murders, like those in Raqqa and Hasakah, as well as national differences and the SDF’s calls for federalism, which many consider the first step to partition in Syria, were also important factors. Deir Ez-Zor’s local factions asked to fight the battle on their own, then requested separate fronts away from those of the SDF, but the United States categorically rejected these demands.

Excluding local military factions that are a point of agreement among Deir Ez-Zor residents, despite their ability to fight, will cause a crisis. The crisis may only become apparent after ISIS is expelled, but it will come, embodied in a popular rejection of the presence of forces alien to the area. Local groups are currently setting aside the issue of their ideological, national and political differences with the SDF until after ISIS has been driven out, but may later form alliances with Arab tribes and expelled factions to drive the Syrian Democratic Forces out of these areas if the opportunity arises.

Ignoring local citizen dynamics

Local military factions’ refusal to work under the umbrella of the SDF is mirrored by the refusal of the SDF and its governing council, the Syrian Democratic Council, to work with other political and civil forces formed by the people of the governorate.

For example, it was recently announced that a locally elected provincial council of Deir Ez-Zor was formed to take over day-to-day operations within the governorate after ISIS is expelled. Yet the Syrian Democratic Council held a separate conference and announced the election of the Deir Ez-Zor civil council without trying to involve the governorate’s residents in the administration of its northern half (the southern half will be under regime control).

Addressing the ideological legacy of ISIS, which spread within local society during the years the organization controlled the governorate, can be a stabilizing factor if it is part of deliberate plans to socially and religiously rehabilitate those who have been swayed by ISIS’s propaganda campaign but do not have blood on their hands. Yet if the parties to the conflict follow through with eliminating ISIS solely through security and military measures such as killings and arrests, this will open another door to conflict and create new victims that will recycle its ideology. This in turn will create an environment conducive to the return of ideologically likeminded extremist organizations seeking vengeance.

These factors, taken together, do not bode well for stability in Deir Ez-Zor. Instead, they threaten to hold it hostage to the conflict indefinitely.