We’re being told that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad “has the upper hand,” “is advancing,” or maybe even “winning” the ongoing conflict. There’s a grain of truth to this, of course: the Syrian government has just staved off American bombings, retaken the town of al-Safira, and made advances elsewhere. Syrian government representatives seem confident as the opposition continues to fumble before the planned Geneva II peace conference negotiations.
But there’s no such thing as simple progress in a war this complicated. Syria is a diverse country, and more than anything else, the war has been characterized by the localized nature of its battles. Have a look at the eastern deserts, for example, and you could be forgiven for thinking that Assad’s regime is closer to collapse than victory.
Syria’s Wild East
Eastern Syria always was its own political universe, with a demographic and sectarian makeup very different from the west. Halfway into Hassake the landscape begins to fade over into non-Arab territory, with Syriac Christians and a Kurdish plurality in the towns and villages toward the northern border. But in southern Hassake and the Deir ez-Zor Province itself, the population is overwhelmingly Sunni Arab, with only some smaller minority communities, like the Armenian-Orthodox congregation in Deir ez-Zor.
This superficial homogeneity doesn’t mean that the area is free of internal fissures or, God forbid, easy to understand. Quite the contrary. The Deir ez-Zor Province is heavily tribal, with numerous clans stretching across the border into Iraq and even further. The balance of power between and within these tribes has always influenced the politics of the region. The Baath Party, for example, has always been careful to try to bring powerful tribal sheikhs into government institutions and to sway them with government patronage.
In cultural terms, Deir ez-Zor has always been more tightly linked to the Sunni Arab regions in western Iraq than to the coastal regions of Syria. Unsurprisingly, the area emerged as a hotbed of pro-insurgent sentiment after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. Weapons and fighters quickly began crossing the border into Iraq with the help of local smugglers, corrupt (or sympathetic) officials, and of course the ever-present tribal connections. The Assad government looked the other way for several years or even encouraged the traffic until it finally began cracking down on the growing jihadi support networks around 2008.
The 2011 Uprising
Deir ez-Zor has considerable oil wealth, but it has suffered economically under Assad. The area began protesting early on in 2011. The government’s strategy of co-opting local power brokers—particularly tribal figures—initially served to limit the dissent. But as the protests turned into an armed conflict in summer 2011, Deir ez-Zor decisively joined the uprising.
During skirmishes in August 2011, footage spread of a minaret being destroyed by shelling in the middle of Ramadan. Events like this inflamed tensions further, and more people took up arms. The violence spread along the Euphrates and began to overtake the smaller towns like Mayadin and Albu Kamal.
At this point, the porous border with Iraq came into play again. Smuggling networks and connections had been in place since the Iraq war, and cheap firearms and guerrilla expertise now quickly began to filter back into eastern Syria—along with jihadi veterans from the Iraqi insurgent movement.
The Turning Point: Summer 2012
In summer 2012, Syrian rebels overran several smaller eastern provincial towns and began to push into Deir ez-Zor itself. This was accompanied by a string of defections of prominent eastern regime figures, including the influential ambassador to Iraq Nawaf al-Fares, who is a major tribal sheikh of the Aqeedat tribe, and the then newly appointed prime minister, Riad Hijab.
At this, Assad’s eastern flank began to crumble. As the tide turned, towns and tribes stepped into the antigovernment camp and fighting engulfed the province. By late 2012, rebels were freely roaming the desert—and across the border, the Iraqi insurgency also began to pick up speed again, now in its turn fueled by arms from Syria.
For The Battle in Eastern Syria, Part II, click here.