In the aftermath of the agreement on ‘de-escalation areas’ signed in the Kazakh capital Astana on 4 May between Russia, Iran and Turkey, a new phase of international conflict in Syria has begun, and its main arena is in the eastern desert currently dominated by ISIS. Whoever wins the desert war will gain geographic and strategic advantages whose repercussions go beyond the borders of Syria and Iraq. All the warring parties in Syria have, until recently, given the eastern desert low priority. The regime and its allies, on one side, and the armed opposition, on the other, have placed their focus on the Syrian west, or what the regime has called ‘useful Syria’, which includes the coastal region on the Mediterranean. The majority of the population and the majority of projects delivering essential services, in addition to agricultural land, lie in this area.
The area has therefore been the hub of clashes between the armed opposition and the regime, with these clashes spanning Aleppo, Idlib, Homs, Daraa, the area surrounding Damascus and the countryside of Hama. The priority for the regime and its allies has been to end the armed rebellion in ‘useful Syria’ and to protect it from the attacks of the opposition and ISIS from the east by securing the Aleppo-Homs-Damascus line. But with the end of the pockets of opposition in the city of Aleppo and the periphery of Damascus, pro-regime forces can now devote themselves to the Syrian desert. Their new war in the area has two main military goals. The first is to disrupt the efforts of the Western-backed Syrian opposition operating out of the military base on the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border, through the liberation of the cities of Al-Bu Kamal, Al-Sokhna and Deir Ezzor from ISIS. The second objective is to carry out a large-scale military operation to control the Damascus–Baghdad road, including the tightening of control over the Syrian-Iraqi border, before moving to Deir Ezzor. Pro-regime forces have announced the launch of the ‘Operation Lavender’ to control the ethnically diverse triangle that links the countryside of Aleppo, Hama and Raqqa. The regime’s control of this triangle will enable it to reach areas recently dominated by the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), opening the door to disrupting the US-led international anti-ISIS coalition’s plan to liberate Raqqa by using the SDF as ground forces. The ‘Big Dawn’ battle on 25 May, in which ISIS forces withdrew from the area extending between eastern Qalamoun and southern Homs while pro-regime forces took control of the entire southern Homs countryside, unified the Homs and Damascus fronts. This will allow the regime’s forces to penetrate the areas of ISIS control in the northeast to Sokhna and from there to advance to Deir Ezzor, as well as to the opposition-controlled areas in the far east on the Damascus–Baghdad road.
The sudden withdrawal of ISIS and the advance of the regime’s militias in the region also isolated opposition groups in eastern Qalamoun from those in the desert, destroying the opposition’s dream of lifting the sieges of eastern Qalamoun and eastern Ghouta.
But the desert war also has two other broader goals. A regime victory in the eastern desert would bring it control of most of the country’s internal resources, from wheat and cotton fields in Jazira, to oil fields in Deir Ezzor, to gas and phosphate in the vicinity of Palmyra. The economic objective is to supply ‘useful Syria’ with primary resources and food, which would support the operation of power plants and the production of electricity and fuel, replacing an energy production process based on oil trade with ISIS. In January, the Syrian and Iranian governments signed an agreement to develop production and investment in al-Sharqiya Phosphate Mine in Palmyra and other economic projects described by the Tasnim News Agency as ‘handing over some projects to Iran for implementation in Syria’. Control by the regime and its allies over the eastern desert also provides a geographic link between the pro-Tehran Shia militias in Syria and Iraq, to complete the linking of the so-called ‘Shia crescent’ or ‘Shia axis’ stretching from Tehran to Beirut and Latakia in the west. This would prevent the US-backed, mainly Sunni Syrian opposition from building a Sunni axis in the region along the Syrian-Iraqi border from north to south.
The advance of the regime’s forces and allies in the eastern desert coincides with the progress of the Iraqi-backed Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) towards the Syrian-Iraqi border. On 24 May, PMF militia took control of the western section of Qairouan in the Iraqi province of Nineveh, south of Mount Sinjar, after it had been held by ISIS. The arrival of the PMF in Qairouan is a prelude to progressing to the Iraqi district of Al-Baaj, which borders Deir Ezzor. Iraqi and Iranian pro-regime militias are racing the US-backed Syrian opposition forces, based at the military base of al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi-Jordanian border, to Deir Ezzor. The regime’s forces have therefore opened a new front towards al-Tanf from the eastern Swaida countryside on the Syrian-Jordanian border. Controlling the area would allow pro-regime forces to close the border in the face of any Jordanian military intervention from the Syrian south. The desert war’s implications go beyond Syria and Iraq. An international confrontation could erupt between Russia and Iran on the one hand and the United States and the international coalition on the other in the Syrian Desert. Russian military experts were present on the frontlines alongside regime forces in the ‘Big Dawn’ operation, while US Special Forces operate at al-Tanf base and are accompanying the opposition forces east of Homs.
With regime control of ‘useful Syria’ growing, the Syrian opposition and its Western backers have, in the desert war, an opportunity to prevent this control from expanding eastwards. The main strategic battle ahead is not just in Raqqa but also in Deir Ezzor.
Mazen Ezzi is a Syrian researcher and journalist. He graduated from Damascus University. He works as an editor at Almodon e-newspaper, and senior researcher in Synaps.