Before the uprising in Syria in 2011, the eastern governorate of Deir Ezzor functioned like a hub and spokes. The city of Deir Ezzor was the hub for four surrounding regions, whose population centers were separated by great distances. However, years of conflict have shattered this relationship, leaving the regions disconnected from Deir Ezzor city and largely independent of one another. How the war against the Islamic State in eastern Syria concludes will reshape past ties and networks in Deir Ezzor, both with regard to Damascus as well as within eastern Syria.
Deir Ezzor governorate’s makeup stands in contrast to neighboring Raqqa governorate, which is essentially a single region with small towns directly linked to Raqqa city. The regions around Deir Ezzor city, however, are divided by residents on an axis separating the western countryside (rif gharbi) from the eastern countryside (rif sharqi), and another along the Euphrates River, which cuts through the city. Areas north of the Euphrates are known as the Jazira and those to the south are known as the Shamiyyeh. These axes divide Deir Ezzor’s periphery into four quadrants.
The war against the Islamic State in these regions has led to serious fragmentation, and each of these quadrants is now subject to very different political and social forces. To the southwest of the city, the countryside is coming increasingly under the control of the regime as it pushes out the Islamic State. Moreover, the leadership of the predominant tribe in the area, the Busaraya, has historically had strong ties with the regime.
In the northwestern countryside, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are advancing and have with them some of the traditional leaders of that area’s dominant tribe, the Baggara. However, several important figures in the Baggara have aligned with the regime and are mobilizing members of the tribe in support of this option.
At the same time, the presence of natural resources in the eastern countryside of Deir Ezzor has made the area a major prize. It has also contributed to further fragmentation there, most notably with the disintegration of the Aqeedat tribe into various sub-tribes and clans.
Each of the many actors involved in eastern Syria has its own priorities. The regime seeks to use control over the region to link the country’s east to its center and south once again. The United States sees Deir Ezzor governorate as essential for securing control over several areas in the vast and sparsely populated expanses along the Iraqi border. Many of the Free Syrian Army members allied with U.S.-led coalition forces, in turn, see an opportunity to recapture their hometowns. Kurdish forces, concentrated in the SDF, seek to gain more territory in Deir Ezzor, which they could use as leverage in advancing their agenda in the Jazira region of northeastern Syria.
Because local tribes are no longer able to mobilize their members without external support, most will likely remain in some ways subject to these external agendas—ensuring the region remains territorially fragmented.
Since the era of the Ottoman Tanzimat in the 1870s, Deir Ezzor has served as an economic and political center for eastern Syria. Its location on vital trade routes has given it a prominent political role, with local business and political elites often becoming part of Syria’s national elite. The state also sought to give it an educational role by establishing Al-Furat University in Deir Ezzor city in 2006, drawing students from across eastern Syria.
The Assad regime has maintained a major military presence in Deir Ezzor. The governorate hosts the largest military base in eastern Syria as well as the headquarters of the powerful Air Force Intelligence Directorate (Mukhabarat al-Jawiyya) for Hasakeh, Raqqa, and Deir Ezzor governorates. Throughout the present conflict, the regime fiercely defended the military air base near Deir Ezzor city. Commanders of the elite Republican Guard from Damascus have been stationed there, further highlighting the area’s significance for the regime.
Even today, control of eastern Syria means substantial economic gains for whomever controls it. The region borders Iraq, benefiting from cross-border trade, and has substantial oil reserves, containing 68 out of Syria’s 114 oil wells. Before the war, the revenues from these wells were used to help fund the Republican Guard, which is principally used for regime protection and is therefore usually focused almost exclusively on Damascus. The status of Deir Ezzor explains why the regime dispatched the 104th Brigade of the Republican Guard to defend the Deir Ezzor military air base early in the Syrian conflict, maintaining a presence even after it had lost the oil fields. The benefits of this approach are now clear.
The war against the Islamic State will end sooner or later, but in the interim it is creating a new territorial reality that will alter Deir Ezzor’s position as a hub. In the post-Islamic State phase, Deir Ezzor city will no longer be linked to Raqqa and Hasakeh as it was historically, but only to Damascus through the Palmyra road. That’s because Raqqa and Hasakeh are likely to find themselves under the control of forces other than the regime, as are those sections of Deir Ezzor governorate controlled by the SDF. This would represent a major shift in the economic and political dynamics of eastern Syria, changing the entire economic and political order of the region. This will have major implications for Syria’s future.
Historically, the Baath Party and the Assad regime ruled eastern Syria and its hub of Deir Ezzor through security figures and local agreements with notables and state-affiliated elites. In that sense Damascus was the guardian of Deir Ezzor. Today, the war has reshaped this order entirely and produced a new one, with eastern Syria fragmented and under the control of various local and international players. As the regime recaptures territory in Deir Ezzor, it is reincorporating the parts it controls into this new territorial framework in order to take advantage of its strategic potential, regardless of the social and political situation. As one regime figure put it, “We are reconciling with the land, not the people.”