As we noted yesterday, the rebels in eastern Syria’s Deir ez-Zor Province have been making progress against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces, even as the uprising in some other parts of the country has stalled or is in retreat. But the eastern insurgency is problematic even by Syrian standards. Internal splits and rivalries are pervasive, with innumerable smaller local militias shifting back and forth between alliances.
The larger groups seem to be either tribally based, religious fundamentalists, or, in many cases, both. The conservative religious traditions of Deir ez-Zor contributed to the rise of Islamist factions very early on, and the fact that the province’s proximity to Iraq made it a hotbed of pro-insurgent sentiment after the 2003 U.S. invasion of that country also played its part. Already by mid- to late 2011, fighters aligned with al-Qaeda were filtering into Syria from Iraq to establish what was to become the Nusra Front, a militant Islamist rebel brigade (and later the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, another jihadi brigade). In its decision to sanction the Nusra Front as an al-Qaeda affiliate, the U.S. Department of the Treasury even pointed out that the group’s eastern commander, Maysar Ali al-Jubouri, was an Iraqi from Mosul.
Supreme Military Council–Jihadi Conflict
The uprising’s international sponsors have put in considerable effort trying to reverse this trend without much success. At its creation in December 2012, the Western- and Gulf-backed Supreme Military Council (SMC), the command structure for the rebel Free Syrian Army, appointed Lieutenant Colonel Mohammed al-Aboud as the leader of the uprising on the “eastern front.” By September 2013, Aboud claimed to control some 15,000 fighters but complained of a lack of material support that made it impossible for him to exert real influence.
For that and other reasons, the eastern SMC factions are not faring very well. In recent months, the hardline jihadis of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant have been extending their influence through carrot-and-stick tactics: offering good terms to lure fighters and engaging pragmatically with the tribal environment while also provoking fights with unpopular factions, smugglers, and rivals that refuse to bend the knee. In their typical fashion, the jihadis are now breaking up smaller and isolated groups one by one to cannibalize their membership and resources.
In late November, the Islamic State broadcast a thirty-minute clip showing the videotaped confessions and self-criticism of one of the SMC leaders of the Deir ez-Zor front, Aboud’s top deputy Saddam al-Jamal (of the Gulf-backed Ahfad al-Rasul Brigade). He lambasted the SMC as a tool of foreign interests and declared his allegiance to the Islamic State. It was not clear whether he was speaking voluntarily or under duress, but it was eminently clear that al-Jamal’s remarks represented a victory for the Islamic State over the SMC.
Social Roots of Ideological Disputes
While many of these splits will superficially play out along religious and ideological lines, they often seem to be rooted in very worldly problems. Economic and tribal rivalries are unavoidable sources of tension. And while God and the Prophet are routinely invoked by all sides in every rebel-on-rebel skirmish, many of these turf wars really seem to revolve more around oil and smuggling rents.
Foreign fighters do not seem to be as prevalent among the jihadis in Deir ez-Zor as elsewhere, but that is not to say geography doesn’t matter. In an excellent and very detailed article for Le Monde, French scholar Frantz Glasman also points to a social division that has been recurring all across Syria during the uprising:
- The majority of the jihadis in Deir ez-Zor are actually Syrians from the province, including those that fight in the ranks of the Islamic State. Most of them have been recruited in the villages, outside of the urban centers. Just like the population of Aleppo, which gave a cold welcome to rebels arriving from the countryside, the inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor and other cities have been wary of the intentions and actions of the jihadis, which they perceive as a sort of rural lumpenproletariat seeking vengeance on the city.
Recent Rebel Advances
Despite all these internal divisions, the insurgency in Deir ez-Zor has been making noticeable progress. In spring and summer 2013, the Assad government seemed to draw down its activity in parts of the northern and eastern peripheries to focus on consolidation in southern, western, and central Syria (where it has since strengthened its hand).
From about that time, the Islamist factions in Deir ez-Zor have also made clear progress. In early summer 2013, a mix of jihadi and SMC units overran peripheral villages and towns, sparking a nasty sectarian incident in which the tiny Shia community of Hatlah was more or less eradicated.
In August, the rebels took Hawiqa and other neighborhoods in Deir ez-Zor despite heavy bombardment from the air force. By October, the Nusra Front and other factions had expanded further into the central Rashidiya neighborhood, and a month later videos were released showing rebels streaming into one of the country’s largest oil fields.
In mid-October, the rebels also managed to kill General Jamea Jamea, one of the regime’s most prominent security chiefs. As head of the military intelligence branch, he was one of the men leading the city’s defense. His death was a major victory for the Deir ez-Zor insurgency.
More Suffering Ahead
Despite these recent advances, the battle for Deir ez-Zor does not appear to be coming to a close just yet. The government remains well armed and well ensconced in the southern neighborhoods of Deir ez-Zor, controlling a number of strongpoints and military bases as well as a military airfield. If supplies continue to be brought in by air, it is possible that these positions could hold for a long time. And if the government’s situation stabilizes elsewhere, it might even be able to send reinforcements and push back against the rebels, whose internal divisions threaten to unravel the front in the longer term.
Meanwhile, Deir ez-Zor itself has been largely destroyed. Entire neighborhoods are in ruins after being hammered for months by artillery shells, rockets, and bombs. The population has shrunk to some tens of thousands, and the humanitarian toll has been horrendous. A couple of months ago, the World Health Organization even recorded a polio outbreak in the region—the result of child vaccination programs having been out of commission for two years. As the war flows back and forth along the Euphrates, it is, as usual, the civilian population that suffers most.