By directly participating in the fight against ISIS in eastern Syria, Iran is seeking to consolidate its presence in Deir Ez-Zor province in two ways.
First, it is establishing its military authority in Al Bu Kamal city along the Syrian-Iraqi border – the missing link in Iran’s land corridor to Lebanon and the Mediterranean through Syria and Iraq. Second, it is taking advantage of the presence of a Shia population in the towns of Hatla and Murat, east of the Euphrates, to bolster its influence and create a Shia foothold in eastern Syria.
Al Bu Kamal: The missing link
After months of intense fighting, Iranian militias and Hezbollah, together with regime forces, managed to take control of Al Bu Kamal city in eastern Deir Ez-Zor province.
Control of the city by Iranian-backed militias came after a month of fighting ISIS in the city proper and the surrounding area, with the attacking forces advancing from two main staging points: firstly, from the T2 Pumping Station in the desert south of the city, led by Hezbollah and regime forces; and secondly, from inside Iraqi territory opposite the city, where military operations were carried out by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed Iraqi militias.
The forces attacking the city were managed from a joint Iranian-led operations room headed by Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force, who led the city’s take-over operations with a group of officers from the IRGC.
The cost of the battle was high. Iran and supporting militias lost more than 200 fighters with dozens more casualties. Among the dead were two IRGC commanders, including Khairi Samadi, an adviser to Qassem Soleimani, several Hezbollah field commanders, and others from Iraqi militias, as well as more than 150 regime soldiers. Indeed, the Iranian death toll reflects the importance it has ascribed to the city.
Iranian support for the battle was not limited to ground forces. It also paid the full material cost of a heated race with the Americans, as the US tried to spur on its ally, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), to reach the city first.
However, US and SDF attempts failed for a multitude of reasons, not least of which was US hesitation. This seems to stem from fear of a Russian response denouncing the power sharing agreement in Deir Ez-Zor Province, which allocates areas south of the river to the regime and its allies, Russia and Iran, and areas north of the Euphrates to SDF forces and their American counterparts.
Likewise, SDF forces were delayed by ISIS resistance in the villages of Khasham and Jadeed Ekedat in eastern Deir Ez-Zor and regime forces crossing north of the Euphrates to take control of Halta, Murat, and Saheliya. In contrast, Iranian and pro-regime forces advanced quickly, jumping from one area to the next, leaving large areas in the eastern Deir Ez-Zor countryside in the hands of ISIS in order to reach the outskirts of the city in time. The regime forces also benefitted from the presence of allies in eastern Iraq which helped swing the battle in their favour.
Iran’s victory in Al Bu Kamal has enabled it to fulfil a dream held since 1979: the opening of a land corridor to the Mediterranean and Lebanon through Syria and Iraq, which has for years been one of the greatest Arab and regional worries. Now Iran is working to expel ISIS from its remaining areas of control in the Syrian Badia in southern Deir Ez-Zor province and in the northern and eastern Homs countryside to completely secure its path to the sea.
A Shia foothold
Not only is Iran opening a land corridor through the city of Al Bu Kamal, it is also seeking to create pockets of influence in Deir Ez-Zor in the towns of Halta and Murat similar to Fu’ah and Fafriyah in Idlib and Nabl and Zahraa in Aleppo.
The towns of Halta and Murat are under the control and administration of Iranian elements and local military outfits led by Shia religious figures with direct ties to Iran. Iran’s policy of demographic change seeks to repopulate these areas with members of the Shia community and prevent the towns’ Sunni residents from returning home.
The enmity held by much of the towns’ Shia population for other groups in the region is another important factor helping to consolidate Iranian influence. Much of this stems from an attack in mid-2013 when dozens of Shia Muslims were killed by Syrian Sunni rebels in retaliation for an attack, carried out by men from Halta and Murat, on a car carrying members of the Free Syrian Army, which resulted in several casualties. This drove opposition factions, alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, to attack the two towns, killing several of their Shia residents, including women and children, and shelling Shia places of worship.
The Shia who remained escaped to regime-controlled areas of the Harabesh neighbourhood and the village of Jafra, east of the city, where some of them formed military groups supported by Iran.
Iran and its proxy militias are not only working to change demographics in the towns of Halta and Murat, they are also actively pursuing religious campaigns in areas west of the Euphrates in Deir Ez-Zor, in order to try to convert the people of those areas to Shia Islam and join its militias spread across the province.
Iran’s advocacy campaigns attempt to exploit the dire economic situation of civilians exhausted by years of war, by providing monthly handouts to every family that converts to Shia Islam and periodic in-kind food aid. Iranian militias also attempt to use scare tactics to compel civilians to join their ranks if they wish to ensure their survival and avoid arrest. These militias also discriminate against non-Shia civilians in the regime controlled areas of Deir Ez-Zor.
All these dynamics indicate that Iran’s interest in Deir Ez-Zor is a long-term one. Iran is capitalising on the area’s strategic location, resources and presence of a Shia community to increase its foothold in northeastern Syria and keep the Syrian-Iraqi border there porous.