The Lebanese Army, Hezbollah and the Assad regime’s army opened an offensive on both sides of the Lebanon- Syria border on Saturday to clear ISIS out of a pocket it holds that straddles the frontier.
This offensive further deepens the relationship between President Bashar Assad’s regime, Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army.
At the same time, Syrian forces are advancing on the city of Deir al-Zor, 350 km. to the east, which could lead to Syria re-taking the Euphrates Valley and linking up with pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
The offensive on the Lebanese- Syrian border has been planned for weeks, according to comments Lebanese Army Brig.-Gen. Ali Kanso made to the press. It is designed to rid Lebanon of ISIS and return Lebanese territory to the army’s control. President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah, was photographed following the offensive closely.
On the Syrian side of the border, the regime and Hezbollah are assaulting ISIS, as well. The plan is to clear around 250 sq. km. held by ISIS on both sides. For three years, the area around the Qalamoun mountains and Arsal in Lebanon has been the scene of fighting involving a mosaic of forces – ISIS, Syrian rebel groups, Nusra Front, Hezbollah, the Syrian Army and the Lebanese Army. On July 21, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces attacked ISIS positions but the Lebanese Army did not take part on its side of the border.
The seeming coordination now between Damascus, Beirut and Hezbollah will be seen as more evidence of the degree to which Hezbollah operates not only within Lebanon and outside Lebanon as its own force but also coordinates with the Lebanese Army.
Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has opposed Hezbollah’s growing strength, sought to resist this over the years in which Hezbollah has played a major role in the Syrian conflict. Now, in the mountains of Qalamoun, history is being made.
A 50-second video clip posted on Twitter over the weekend from eastern Syria’s Rojava region purports to show US-led coalition military supplies being shipped to the Syrian Democratic Forces in the fight against ISIS. Twenty four truckloads of equipment carrying several MRAPs [Mine-Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles] and two dozen pick-up trucks, as well as mobile generators, pass in the video. The vehicles are likely destined for the US-backed SDF offensive to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State.
However, 140 km. southeast of the battle in Raqqa, a less well-known, but perhaps more strategic, city is at the center of plans by the Syrian regime to restore its rule to the country.
Deir al-Zor is one of the largest cities in eastern Syria and sits on the Euphrates River. Before the Syrian civil war began, it was a diverse city with a church consecrated as a memorial to the Armenian genocide and contained a pretty suspension bridge built in 1927 during the French occupation.
Syrian rebels laid siege to regime forces in the city in 2013. Because ISIS used the Euphrates to connect its power-centers in Iraq with Syria, the Sunni jihadists tried to take Deir al-Zor in 2014 after dispersing the rebels.
Regime forces knew ISIS had executed en masse soldiers they captured at Tabqa in August 2014, and they were under no illusions what would happen to the garrison if Deir al-Zor fell. So Deir al-Zor has held on, under siege by ISIS, for three years.
Now, the Syrian regime, able to draw resources from other front lines that are under shaky cease-fires with the rebels, is concentrating on reaching its besieged garrison. In the last month, the Syrian Army has advanced along a road from Palmyra to as-Sukhnah, which was re-taken in mid-August. The army also has swept around to the northwest of Deir al-Zor, skirting Syrian Democratic Forces lines near Tabqa and Raqqa to reach the Euphrates. From Ma’adan, the army will be within 70 km. of Raqqa.
This is part of a larger strategic picture, argues Fabrice Balanche in a new piece for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “If the Syrian Army succeeds in capturing Deir al-Zor city, it will then focus on the rich al-Omar oil fields, which account for 50% of Syrian production.”
He argues that the Syrian Democratic Forces and “US-backed Arab rebels would thus be denied access to the lower Euphrates Valley between Deir al-Zor and Abu Kamal.”
However, an SDF offensive toward the Euphrates Valley and Deir al-Zor would “allow the US to block the planned Iranian corridor and maintain pressure on the Assad regime.”
Rumors about a possible Syrian Democratic Forces advance or US-backed Arab force advancing on Deir al-Zor have been floating for months. Some of these envisioned the US transporting units of the Maghaweer al-Thawra from Tanf, near the Jordanian border, to al-Shaddadi, which is controlled by the SDF and is 100 km. north of Deir al-Zor. Maghaweer al-Thawra is an anti-ISIS Arab force trained by the coalition but, as Balanche points out, it is not very large.
The reality on the ground is that the SDF has not moved from its positions in al-Shaddadi since January.
It has focused on defeating ISIS in Raqqa since June. There are no SDF troops advancing toward Deir al-Zor and the US does not appear to have any forces in play to reach the Euphrates near the city.
Nevertheless, Twitter accounts have spread statements attributed to British Army Maj.-Gen. Rupert Jones, deputy commander-strategy and support for Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve, claiming the US “will not allow the Syrian regime forces to bypass the Euphrates River.”
In an emailed statement, the coalition denied this. “Maj.-Gen. Jones made no such comments as he took meetings in Ayn Issa to discuss the needs of the people of Raqqa post- Daesh [ISIS].” Furthermore, the statement notes “the coalition mission is to work by, with and through our partner forces to defeat Daesh in Iraq and Syria. The coalition has no fight with the Syrian regime or its allies in the counter-Daesh fight.”
According to the coalition, the current de-confliction line agreed to by the SDF, the coalition, Russia and the Syrian regime, runs in an arc from southwest of Tabqa around to the Euphrates River, where it extends toward Deir al-Zor. It does not extend into the city. This is a key point, that means the decision on the progress of the conflict past Deir al-Zor is unclear. This illustrates that the only thing the US is focused on is defeating ISIS, and de-conflicting with the Syrian forces that are moving toward Deir al-Zor.
“We have no fight with anyone but Daesh and will not support any operations that are not against Daesh,” the coalition public affairs office wrote in an email. It further noted that ISIS is a “truly evil enemy of the people of Syria, the region and the world."