What the Syrian regime's assault on ISIS means for the region

As the Syrian regime attacks ISIS near Damascus and US-led coalition forces close in on Raqqa, the region's power dynamics are changing.

A Syrian tank loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces is seen in Fleita, Syria August 2, 2017. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A Syrian tank loyal to Syria's President Bashar al-Assad forces is seen in Fleita, Syria August 2, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
The Lebanese army, Hezbollah and the Syrian regime’s army launched an offensive Saturday on both sides of the Lebanon-Syria border to clear the Islamic State out of a pocket it holds that straddles the border. The offensive further deepens the relationship between Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Hezbollah and the Lebanese army.
Meanwhile, Syrian forces are advancing on the city of Deir ez-Zor on the Euphrates, 350 km to the east, which could lead to Syrian forces re-taking the Euphrates valley and linking up with pro-Iranian militias in Iraq.
The offensive on the Lebanon-Syrian border has been planned for weeks, according to comments Lebanese Army Brigadier General Ali Kanso made to the press. It is designed to rid Lebanon of ISIS and return Lebanese territory to the army’s sovereignty. President Michel Aoun, a political ally of Hezbollah's, was photographed following the offensive closely.
Syrian regime forces and Hezbollah are assaulting ISIS as well on the Syrian side of the border as well. Their 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 have been a battlefield involving a mosaic of forces: ISIS, Syrian rebel groups, the Nusra Front, Hezbollah and the Syrian and Lebanese armies. On July 21, Hezbollah and Syrian government forces assaulted ISIS positions, but the Lebanese army did not take part on their side of the border.
A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tark artillery at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border (Reuters)A Hezbollah fighter stands in front of anti-tark artillery at Juroud Arsal, the Syria-Lebanon border (Reuters)
The coordination between Damascus, Beirut and Hezbollah will be seen as more evidence of Hezbollah's rising influence — not only within Lebanon and outside the country as it’s own force, but also on the Lebanese army. Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri, who has opposed Hezbollah’s growing strength, sought to resist Hezbollah's rising influence over the years, as the group has played a major role in the Syrian conflict.
Now, in the mountains of Qalamoun, history is being made.
A fifty-second video clip posted on Twitter over the weekend from eastern Syria’s Rojava alleges 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 and two-dozen pick-up trucks, as well as mobile generators, are seen passing in the video. The vehicles are likely destined for the US-backed SDF offensive to liberate Raqqa from Islamic State.
One-hundred and forty 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 ez-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, they tried to take Deir ez-Zor in 2014 after dispersing the Syrian rebels. Syrian regime forces knew that 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 ez-Zor fell. So Deir ez-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 ceasefires 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 Syrian army has also swept around to the northwest of Deir ez-Zor, skirting SDF lines near Tabqa and Raqqa to reach the Euphrates. From Ma’adan, the Syrian army will be within 70 km. of Raqqa.
This is part of a larger strategic picture, argued Fabrice Balanche in a new piece at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“If the Syrian army succeeds in captured Deir al-Zour [sic] city, it will then focus on the rich al-Omar oil fields, which account for 50 percent of Syrian production,” he wrote. The SDF and “US-backed Arab rebels would thus be denied access to the lower Euphrates valley between Deir al-Zour and Abu Kamal,” he argued. But an SDF offensive towards the Euphrates valley and Deir ez-Zor would “allow the US to block the planned Iranian corridor and maintain pressure on the Assad regime.”
Rumors about a possible SDF advance or US-backed Arab force advancing on Deir ez-Zor have been floating around for months. Some of these envisioned the US transporting units of the Maghaweer al-Thawra from Tanf, near the Jordan border, to al-Shaddadi, which is controlled by the SDF and is 100km north of Deir ez-Zor. Maghaweer al-Thawra is an anti-ISIS Arab force trained by the coalition, but as Balanche points out, these forces are not very large.
The reality on the ground is that the SDF has not moved from its positions in Shaddadi since January. It has focused on defeating ISIS in Raqqa since June. There are no SDF forces advancing toward Deir ez-Zor and the US does not appear to have any forces in play to reach the Euphrates near Deir ez-Zor.
Nevertheless twitter accounts have spread statements attributed to Maj. Gen Rupert Jones 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 Raqqah 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-conflicting line agreed to by the SDF, the coalition, Russia and the Syrian regime runs in an arc from southwest of Tabqah around to the Euphrates river, where it extends toward Deir ez-Zor. It does not extend into Deir ez-Zor. This is a key point — it means that the decision on the progress of the conflict past Deir ez-Zor is unclear. It illustrates that the US is only focused on is defeating ISIS and de-conflicting with the Syrian forces that are moving toward Deir ez-Zor.
“We have no fight with anyone but Da’esh and will not support any operation that are not against Da’esh,” the coalition public affairs office wrote in an email. They further note that ISIS is a “truly evil enemy of the people of Syria, the region and the world.”