The Syrian regime and the SDF are very close to driving Daesh out from the strategic city of Deir Ezzor, the last urban Daesh stronghold in Syria. But for the key players, the political dynamics are proving complicated.
Deir Ezzor, a strategic eastern Syrian city has largely been captured from Daesh by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russian-backed Syrian regime forces. Driving out Daesh from the city is not only a significant blow to Daesh, but is also a crucial get for both the SDF and the regime forces.
The eastern city of Deir Ezzor is the latest battlefield where the fight to drive Daesh out is still ongoing after Raqqa, the northern city where the group established its capital for more than three and a half years. For Daesh, Deir Ezzor doesn’t have the symbolic importance that Raqqa had, but it is the last urban stronghold in Syria under its control.
But that's not the only reason why the city is significant. Before the civil war, the city served as the oil capital, where the Syrian regime struck deals with Western oil giants including Shell, and Total. Daesh took control of most parts of the province in April 2014. According to the Syrian Gas Company in Deir Ezzor, Daesh controlled nearly 80 percent of oil fields and most gas deposits in the province until September 2017.
September was the month Daesh lost significant parts of Deir Ezzor, thanks to advances by the regime and SDF.
The Syrian regime had been conducting airstrikes on Daesh with Russian support, both in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor. But in Raqqa, the regime did not actively take part in ground battles against Daesh. Instead, the SDF forces fought against Daesh and drove it out of the city.
But it was different in Deir Ezzor, where elite regime forces took part in ground battles and broke Daesh’s more than three-year siege on September 6. Syria's Bashar al Assad retaking control of the city would also serve to reconnect western Syria to the capital, Damascus. It would also connect Iraq to the Abu Kamal border crossing while challenging the SDF’s grip in the northeast.
But the city is also important to factions other than the Syrian regime. Its north has became a battlefield for the SDF, the group dominated by the YPG, which is the armed wing of PKK's Syrian affiliate, the PYD. The PKK is listed as a terrorist organisation by Turkey, the US, and the European Union. It has been fighting Turkish state for more than 30 years and left thousands dead, including civilians.
The PYD was founded as a political group in 2003, and has since been active in northern Syria, where the majority of the population is Kurdish. The Assad regime declared the group illegal but it didn’t stop them from taking on Daesh with US support, after Daesh seized control of the northern Syria in 2013. The PYD leaders currently hold administrative roles in the councils that SDF have founded in the areas it captured.
In some SDF-controlled cities where the majority of population was Arab, such as Tal Abyad, Manbij, and Raqqa, SDF did not have any public support but became the US’ tool to fight against Daesh anyway.
Backing the Free Syrian Army, an umbrella group for local opposition groups in Syria and battling the PKK within its borders, Turkey has protested against the US' decision to use YPG to fight Daesh, instead of local forces.
In Deir Ezzor, also a majority Arab province, SDF has become the US’ tool again to defeat Daesh. The offensive is likely to give them more momentum and legitimacy to extend their span of control in the territories in the west of the Euphrates river.
The head of the Deir Ezzor Military Council, Ahmed Abu Kholed said he didn’t know where the battle would go after freeing the eastern bank of the Euphrates and the areas Daesh holds.
He also said SDF militants did not expect to clash with Syrian regime forces, but would respond militarily if fired upon. The US-led coalition and Russia are currently holding deconfliction meetings to prevent clashes between the parties.
Syrian regime forces control industrial cities such as Damascus, so capturing Deir Ezzor's city centre and industrial area was their focus. But for the SDF, the oil could be an important source of income.
Indeed the group has focused on capturing oil fields around the city centre, which provide millions of dollars to Daesh monthly. The group captured the country’s key oil field, Al Omar, on September 22. But the area’s political and economic dynamics are not just driven by oil. Reports say, regardless of who controls the area next, water scarcity will be the next problem faced.
Locked in by the regime in the south and the west, for the SDF, Deir Ezzor is the very last point the SDF can reach. Iraq's border in the east and Turkey's border in the north, prevent them from expanding.