Hezbollah and Syrian flags flutter on a military vehicle in Western Qalamoun, Syria August 28, 2017..
(photo credit: OMAR SANADIKI/REUTERS)
Syria’s decision to concentrate on reaching the Euphrates Valley has redrawn the strategic balance of a six-year-old civil war.
“Today, you stood side-by-side with your comrades who came to your rescue and fought the hardest battles to break the siege of the city,” regime leader Bashar Assad told commanders in a call on Tuesday, after the Syrian Army ended a 28-month siege of Deir al-Zor, a city on the Euphrates River and capital of a governorate by the same name in the country’s east.
Breaking the ISIS siege of the city is widely viewed as a significant military victory. It is “an important step on way to liberating Syria from terrorism,” wrote the Russian Embassy in Damascus in a tweet.
It is also a strategic victory for the Syrian regime, which will now use it to leverage control of the Euphrates Valley and march on Al-Bukamal on the Iraqi border. This will create a fait accompli for US-backed Kurdish and Arab fighters from the Syrian Democratic Forces who are busy trying to defeat ISIS in Raqqa.
The speed of the Syrian advance on Deir al-Zor also sheds light on why the regime and Hezbollah sought to divert an ISIS convoy evacuated from Qalamoun last month towards Iraq.
They knew they would get to Deir al-Zor in two weeks and didn’t want the ISIS fighters and families to be dumped along the line of advance.
The US-led coalition’s “de-confliction” with the Syrian regime has tended to see the Euphrates as a dividing line. However, that has not always been the case, as revealed by coalition air strikes that prevented the ISIS convoy from reaching Iraq.
Now the Russian Air Force and the Assad regime will create the facts on the ground in eastern Syria that demarcate a new reality.
ISIS’s remaining pockets in the country are also quickly vanishing, even though it still controls an area the size of Cyprus (10,000 sq.km.) in Syria.
The battle was representative of so much of the destruction that has been wrought in the war. Deir al-Zor was once a more vibrant and diverse city, home to around 250,000 people, on the lush Euphrates River. It had a unique pedestrian suspension bridge built in 1927 during the French Mandate. The bridge was destroyed in 2013 during artillery shelling between the regime and opposition. The city also had an Armenian Genocide Martyrs Memorial church, which commemorated the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Armenians in the neighboring Syrian Desert in 1915. The church was blown up in September 2014 by ISIS as the extremists swept through Syria and Iraq, conquering around 90,000 sq.km. of land. Other churches of the Syriac and Latin Christians, who made up around 10,000 residents of the city, were damaged in fighting.
According to Leith Abou Fadel, founder and editor of Al-Masdar News, the city came under a full siege in May 2015 when the Sukhnah-Deir al-Zor Highway was cut by ISIS. In June 2015 a Time photographer reported some normality.
“Thousands of students attend the university and schools remain open.” Then the city went dark as its electric supply was also cut off.
However, the Syrian regime forces led by Maj.-Gen. Issam Zehreddine, a Druse from the Republican Guard, were able to hold out against ISIS. They anchored themselves around a military air base and neighborhoods on the western side of the river. Around 100,000 civilians remained and food and water supplies dwindled.
According to Aron Lund, an analyst, water supplies were only available once a week for several hours. To save the residents the World Food Program began airdrops of food in April 2016.
Pallets with oil, lentils, rice, beans, sugar and salt were chucked out of the back of an Ilyushin Il-76 cargo plane operating from Amman. With near-daily flights, 100 airdrops were made by August 2016 and 300 by August 2017, according to the WFP.
The situation grew worse by January 2017 when an ISIS offensive cut the airfield off from the remaining regime-held civilian areas. Residents told Al-Monitor that phones no longer worked. “There is looting and mugging after sunset.” People were paying $1,000 to be airlifted out and food prices rose dramatically.
Helicopters were the only means of transport as planes could no longer land at the airport which was in range of ISIS rockets. Residents feared an ISIS massacre if things deteriorated further.
In March 2016 Syrian regime forces marched into Palmyra and liberated it from ISIS with Russian air power supporting them; they were only 200 km. from the Deir al-Zor. Russian air strikes targeted ISIS around Deir al-Zor and some thought the Syrian Army would continue its advance. Instead it took more than a year to get the offensive going.
In the middle of last month Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that “we can say that everyone is focused, set up for the fight against ISIS. Today there are such key points like Deir al-Zor.” He said it was a first priority and that its capture would help lead to the defeat of ISIS.
Two weeks later, after 840 days of siege, the Syrian regime forces said they had broken the siege and photos of celebrations and soldiers embracing were published. The Russian Embassy in Syria tweeted a photo of President Vladimir Putin in sunglasses alongside a photo of Bashar Assad. “Putin sends message to President Assad praising strategic victory in Deir al-Zor, important step on way to liberating Syria from terrorism.”
The breaking of the ISIS encirclement marks the end to one of the longest sieges in modern history. It was unique in being supplied primarily by air. With its end passes another chapter in the history of the Syrian civil war.