Hassan Hassan | Senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy in Washington, D.C., and co-author, with Michael Weiss, of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror
The battle against the Islamic State for Deir Ezzor could prove more complex than the ongoing battle for Raqqa. Deir Ezzor is stretched along the Euphrates River and each of the two banks are exposed to desert areas from which the Islamic State could resupply itself and organize attacks. Yet, the United States-led coalition has prepared less for this battle than it did for the one in Raqqa. This and other factors will slow down the effort to dislodge the group from the border area.
Deir Ezzor is outside the territorial depth of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG), which has spearheaded the Raqqa fighting. Even though Arab fighters operating under the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have done most of the fighting, the YPG has been able to break stalemates. Such a role will be harder in Deir Ezzor, due to geography, the YPG’s limited reach there, and local suspicions of the Kurdish-dominated militia and its political ambitions in a governorate with almost no Kurdish demographics.
Local insurgent groups from Deir Ezzor governorate emerged from the anti-regime rebellion. Even when they were expelled by the Islamic State, they fought the regime elsewhere. Their political priorities complicate the effort to organize them under the rubric of the SDF. In contrast, the Islamic State appears to have prepared better for the Deir Ezzor battle. Recently, the group took the unprecedented step of imposing conscription on adults aged between 20 and 30. Deir Ezzor governorate, almost twice as large as Raqqa, is also fortified by desert and border areas, making it a tougher terrain for the U.S.-backed forces. All this indicates that the battle for Deir Ezzor will take longer and will be more complicated than the battle for Raqqa.
Kheder Khaddour | Nonresident scholar focusing on Syria at the Carnegie Middle East Center, author, with Kevin Mazur, of “Eastern Expectations: The Changing Dynamics in Syria’s Tribal Regions”
Multiple actors will fight many battles from multiple locations for the Deir Ezzor region. For each side, the battle has a different relevance. Once Deir Ezzor is reconnected to Palmyra, the Syrian regime will be in a position to link eastern Syria with central and southern Syria. The United States views Deir Ezzor as essential for securing control over the Syrian-Iraqi frontier. Many of the Free Syrian Army members allied with the U.S. hail from northern and eastern Deir Ezzor governorate, and they would see an opportunity to recapture their towns with U.S. support. In the calculations of the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, gaining more territory would mean that they have more political leverage to advance their agenda in other parts of Syria, an approach that has characterized their behavior all along during the Syrian conflict.
Against this multifaceted backdrop, the eradication of the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor will lead to a situation where the different players participating in the battle will establish their control over parts of the governorate, all of them having conflicting interests. This will fragment Deir Ezzor into isolated areas of territory, each controlled by one side or the other.
Charles Lister | Senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, D.C., and manager of its Counterterrorism Project, author of The Syrian Jihad: Al-Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Evolution of an Insurgency(Oxford University Press)
There are many moving pieces that need resolving before the shape of any Deir Ezzor operation, or operations, can be determined. For now, the United States and Russia have agreed to a delineation of responsibility that cuts east and west along the Euphrates River valley. While that seems to be holding, it doesn’t clarify who will ultimately drive on towards Deir Ezzor, Al-Mayadin, Albukamal and elsewhere.
Principally, what we’re waiting to see play out is (1) how quickly the U.S.-led coalition can take Raqqa and mobilize a large enough force to march south into Deir Ezzor through Al-Shadadi; and (2) how efficiently pro-Assad forces can achieve gains south and eastwards into Al-Sukhna, and beyond. These competing coalitions—that led by the Americans and the one led by Russia and Iran—will not only face the challenge of ongoing operations; they will also both suffer from manpower shortages and operational restrictions that could limit their capacity to tackle Deir Ezzor head-on.
Russia for one, seems determined to undermine the U.S. recruitment pool and is investing heavily in forming pro-Assad tribal militias in eastern Syria, particularly drawing on communities victimized by the brutality of the Islamic State. On the other side, the Islamic State long ago shifted its administrative priorities to Al-Mayadin and has introduced conscription in Deir Ezzor to prepare for its defense.