Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, where he focuses on militant Islam, Syria, Iraq, and the Arab Gulf states. He is the co-author of ISIS: Inside the Army of Terror, a New York Times bestseller that was also chosen as one of the Times of London’s Best Books of 2015 and the Wall Street Journal’s top ten books on terrorism. He is from eastern Syria and can be followed on Twitter @hxhassan.
Michael Young: The battle for Deir Ezzor province has already begun. Have the recent major advances of Syrian regime forces towards the city of Deir Ezzor created a false sense that the battle for the whole governorate will be easy?
Hassan Hassan: At this point, the campaigns announced by both the Syrian regime and the United States-led international coalition are largely posturing. The regime’s push to break the siege around Deir Ezzor’s provincial capital was swift, but fighting still rages in the desert areas between Palmyra and Deir Ezzor. The same goes for the Washington-backed Syrian Democratic Forces. These gains do not mean that the battle in the rest of Deir Ezzor will be easy. None of the two coalition of forces is sufficiently prepared for a battle the Islamic State views as instrumental.
An extra layer of complexity in the battle for Deir Ezzor is that the governorate has three distinct battlefields. The first one is the city of Deir Ezzor and adjacent towns, where the Syrian regime has maintained a garrison since 2012, despite the enormous rebel and jihadi pressure against it. This battlefield extends south to the Deir Ezzor airport. From there, the rest of the governorate is a tougher terrain. Even when it was still strong in 2012, the regime steadily gave up its bases in the governorate because it could not sustain a presence in a hostile rural environment.
Al-Bukamal, southeast of Deir Ezzor, forms its own region that is largely disjoined from the rest of Deir Ezzor. The Islamic State carved Al-Bukamal out of Deir Ezzor governorate and linked it to the Iraqi city of al-Qa’im to form its Wilayat al-Furat (the organization’s so-called Euphrates Province), because the two cities are better linked with each other. Deir Ezzor is further complicated by the fact that it is surrounded by desert and border areas, meaning it will require a larger contingency to recapture, secure, and hold.
MY: Why is Deir Ezzor governorate so important for the Assad regime?
HH: The regime’s maintenance of a garrison in Deir Ezzor, despite all odds, was long seen as a way of asserting a sense of sovereignty over all of Syria, even as it ceded control of much of the country. But the recent rush to recapture the city and advance further is not related to that calculation. Instead, the regime turned its attention to Deir Ezzor in large part because of the American build-up in eastern and northern Syria. The battle in Raqqa was the trigger for renewed regime and Iranian attention to that region. The increased American footprint made Iran nervous. The expansion of the U.S.-backed forces along the Turkish, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders signaled that Washington was building some kind of a protectorate, something that American officials have repeatedly denied.
Signs of confrontation between forces aligned with the U.S. and Iran began after the recapture of Palmyra by pro-regime forces in May, even though the U.S. indirectly helped in that effort through airstrikes. The forces aligned with the two sides clashed in the Syrian desert, but the situation was eventually contained. Pro-Iran forces then managed to reach the Iraqi borders, and the U.S. conceded that the region extending from Tanf, near the intersection of the Syrian, Iraqi, and Jordanian borders, to Deir Ezzor was within the regime’s sphere of influence.
That episode killed any hope for factions from Deir Ezzor operating in the Qalamoun region and the Syrian desert to attack the Islamic State from the key western axis, where all of the governorate’s three major urban centers are located. Aside from the Deir Ezzor battle, these factions became a great deal less relevant to their backers, a factor that led to tension between them and their American and Jordanian backers.
The concentration of oil and gas fields in Deir Ezzor could have been a driver of the push, but I doubt it is the major driver as some have suggested.
MY: How will the tribal situation in the governorate play out for the regime?
HH: Tribes are always a wild card for any power in the Euphrates River valley. My assessment is that traditional tribal figures would cooperate with the regime. But that does not mean that they have the authority to bring young and battle-hardened individuals from their tribes into line. Tribal elders played an active role in the early phase of the Syrian uprising in trying to prevent youth from organizing protests against the regime. Since then, however, they have been either discredited or inactive, which allowed other forces to play a more critical role in shaping events over the past six years.
Tribes do not fight wars and they do not have a command-and-control mechanism. But they are effective social outreach networks. In this sense, tribes are indispensable. Whether tribal elders could play an effective role after the Islamic State is defeated will depend on the legitimacy of the new rulers. While tribal elders might welcome the regime, or the U.S.-backed forces for that matter, their role will likely be limited if the new rulers are viewed as occupying forces by the elders’ supposed constituency.
In Deir Ezzor, in particular, a regime takeover will likely open the door for Al-Qaeda to return to a governorate where it once had its largest stronghold inside Syria. Unlike in Raqqa and Al-Hasakeh, Al-Qaeda’s branch in Deir Ezzor remained cohesive and did not defect to the Islamic State. The group has hundreds of individuals from Deir Ezzor, and a broader network that it could utilize to return as a committed force against the regime. I see this as a very realistic scenario knowing that even non-jihadis would welcome such a formidable former ally in the fight against the regime in Deir Ezzor. This would be less likely if Deir Ezzor is controlled by U.S.-backed local forces—but the U.S. policy still has serious flaws.
MY: How realistic is the scenario that the U.S.-led coalition fighting for Raqqa can turn southwards after that battle to fight for Deir Ezzor?
HH: The United States insists that the international coalition is more capable of fighting the Islamic State in urban centers such as Mayadeen and Al-Bukamal, both on the western side of the river. At the same time, a push from the western axis is not possible for the U.S.-backed forces because they do not have access to areas west of Deir Ezzor, so they are pushing down on the governorate from north.
The idea of creating a deconfliction zone along the Euphrates River makes no sense for Deir Ezzor. The U.S. envisions a push led by an aligned force to recapture both sides of the river south of the regime’s strongholds in the city of Deir Ezzor and its vicinity. The absence of de-confliction lines has led to tension, even confrontation, near the city. The U.S.-backed forces’ presence east of the city has complicated the matter because the towns east of the river were thought to be potential regime strongholds, since two of them contained Shi‘a inhabitants before the arrival of the Islamic State. The most problematic areas on which the two sides would agree are the towns near the city of Deir Ezzor and the oil facilities east of Mayadeen. The areas further south will likely be handled by the U.S. with little resistance.
Beyond that, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) do not currently have the manpower and resources to defeat the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor. The most perplexing failure of American policy is that powerful factions from Deir Ezzor—which know the terrain extremely well, and which fought the Islamic State for four years, even before the U.S. began its campaign against the group—are not part of the fight. This is all the more bizarre given that two such groups are backed by the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon.
The SDF has been the U.S. vehicle for fighting the Islamic State, and the factions from Deir Ezzor wish to fight as independent forces rather than ones aligned with the Kurds. But the very justification for not using such factions is an indictment of U.S. policy, since Washington’s only ground force in the fight against the Islamic State has failed to win the necessary buy-in from locals who have a clear track record of anti-jihadi sentiments and capabilities. U.S. officials often complain about the difficulty of working with the opposition against jihadis, but this reality in Deir Ezzor is a clear example of how the shortsighted and flawed American policy is to blame for the failure. Because the U.S. has momentum against the Islamic State, officials fail to recognize such flaws.
MY: Is Deir Ezzor a vital part of an Iranian land bridge from Iran to Lebanon? And if so where are we today on that front?
HH: Iran has succeeded in extending the regime’s influence along the Iraqi border, from Tanf to Al-Bukamal. In theory, this already enables Iran to have a land bridge along the Damascus-Baghdad highway. It does not need to control Deir Ezzor to have such a link. The city of Mayadeen provides another route linking Damascus to Deir Ezzor to Iraq. The latter route could be easier for Iran to use given that the other side of the border is easier to clear and secure than the southern parts of Anbar governorate in Iraq.
Iran will have to ensure that the militias beholden to it control the two sides of the border. The main concern for Iran and its allies in Syria seems to be what the U.S. intends to do with its presence in Syria. Symptoms of this anxiety have already begun to appear in eastern Syria, such as the occasional hostilities between the regime and the Kurdish-dominated SDF.
MY: How serious is the U.S. about cutting the land link between Iran and Lebanon through Syria?
HH: Both Baghdad and Washington want the Iraqi army to control the Iraqi side of the border from Anbar to Sinjar. The border strategy includes an effort to have professional forces with which the U.S. could work to secure the borders, in both Iraq and Syria. Judging from what senior officials tell me, the U.S. believes the international coalition and its allies on the ground are better positioned to fight the Islamic State and secure the borders.
For now, though, the supposed strategy is not reflected in reality. Militias beholden to Iran operate along the borders near Sinjar, and these militias will likely join the Iraqi army in the fight in Qa’im and further south. The U.S. conceded ground in the Syrian desert and it is still unclear who will go to which areas in Deir Ezzor governorate. U.S. officials say the situation will be determined by how far the Syrian regime advances against the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor, meaning if the regime could go to the borders and further south in the Euphrates River valley, the U.S. might not stand in its way. Regime forces also announced an offensive toward Al-Bukamal itself last weekend, although this appears to be too ambitious.
MY: Do you believe that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is still alive? If so, where might he be?
HH: There is no reason to believe otherwise. The Islamic State would have likely announced his death had he been killed, or begun to somehow groom another figure to succeed him. We have not seen any of that yet. The Islamic State is big on having a senior figure with “charisma” to be the face of the group. Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi’s death before the caliphate he established crumbles completely could even help lock down his legacy as the man who founded a caliphate, controlled one third of Iraq and half of Syria, established wilayaats, or Islamic State subdivisions, in two-dozen foreign countries, and thus turned his group from a local Iraqi group into a transitional organization competing with Al-Qaeda over global jihad.
Indications from the Iraqi authorities is that Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi is hiding in the border areas along the Syrian-Iraqi borders, where the group still has secure hideouts. It will continue to have these hideouts in the nearby desert if it is dislodged from the towns.
MY: You wrote a best-selling book, with Michael Weiss, on the Islamic State. How relevant will your book be once, or if, Deir Ezzor falls?
HH: Besides the reporting that involved conversations with Islamic State members and with locals who lived under it, a great deal of the book addresses how the previous incarnations of the Islamic State emerged in the wake of the Iraq war, declined, and then rose up again in 2014. The history, like the lessons involved, is as relevant today as it was three years ago. These lessons could even be more relevant if the world is to avoid repeating the same patterns. Unfortunately, shortsightedness appears to be a key feature of U.S. policy. The U.S. is repeating similar patterns, especially with the official fixation on making things appear more positive than they are in reality. Officials gloss over obvious policy flaws that are producing more conflicts in Syria and Iraq than we had three years ago.
The Islamic State, despite being significantly weakened since it seized Mosul in summer 2014, is still stronger and larger than it was before the takeover of Mosul. Even after it has lost Mosul and Raqqa, it will remain a potent threat in Iraq, Syria, and beyond. Throughout the past three years, we have not seen a single example of local forces removing the Islamic State from a major population center without the heavy involvement of America’s mighty air power and logistical support on the ground. This remains an awkward shortcoming in the ground campaign against the group.
That is not to say another rise of the Islamic State is inevitable. The extent of the Islamic State’s future threat hinges largely on whether the U.S. grasps that jihadism is here to stay and that alternatives have to be created. The current strategy of “kill the Islamic State” is shortsighted and destroys more than it builds, no matter what is being said in media and by officials. It is the same shortsightedness that enabled the rise of the forerunners of the Islamic State after their decline in 2007. Indeed, the same officials who played a role in allowing space for the group’s rise are now working to defeat it. It is also the same shortsightedness that enabled Al-Qaeda to become a bigger threat than it was 16 years ago when the War on Terror began.
MY: Has Bashar al-Assad won the war in Syria, and if so how complete a victory might it be?
HH: Bashar al-Assad has won the most important aspect of the war. No country in the world today seriously wants to remove him from power or bring down his regime. Even some of the opposition’s most committed backers now have no appetite for supporting forces challenging his rule. Turkey, for example, has been a key enabler, if indirectly, of the regime’s policy in the north. Ankara has been one of the three sponsors of the Astana process, which has focused on military de-escalation. The political process in Geneva has been greatly shaped by what the Astana process achieves, even though a sense of denial about what can be called the “Astanaization of Geneva” prevails in Western capitals. U.S. and European officials continue to insist that Geneva remains intact and that it will be the only vehicle for a political transition in Syria. This may be true in the sense that Russia will maintain Geneva as the future conduit for a political solution, but the nature of the debate will have evolved significantly when that moment comes.