A mass exodus of Islamic State (IS) commanders and fighters from the Syrian city of Raqqa has been reported recently. The group has controlled Raqqa since late 2013. There are around 500 thousand people living in the city, mainly from the areas of Palmyra, al-Sakhnah and the countryside of Aleppo and Idlib. In late March, Newsweek wrote that there were up to 3,500 IS fighters holding positions in Raqqa.
The IS group is reported to be centered in Deir ez-Zor, roughly 90 miles southeast of Raqqa. Hundreds of IS militants have left their stronghold for the IS-held city of Mayadin located some 40 kilometers from the surrounded Deir ez-Zor, which has been the sole government-controlled area of the province heroically repelling repeated attacks of the terrorists. When the city of Raqqa – the informal IS capital – is retaken, there will be no IS leadership there. They are moving to the new location. The province of Deir-ez-Zor is to become the new main battlefield.
Deir ez-Zor is strategically important as it is home to Syria’s largest oil deposits, which have been major sources of income for IS. The region has “the most fertile oil and gas fields» left under IS control that the group is able to exploit. The province has seen some of the bloodiest fighting and faces dire humanitarian situation.
The city of Deir Ez-Zor lies along the twin river of the Euphrates, which flows past the Syrian-IS front lines to the west. Earlier this year, the IS formations cut Syrian government-held territory in Deir Ez-Zor in two.
The Syrian government forces managed to maintain control of the city’s airport after a massive American air attack last September which killed dozens of Syrian soldiers. The US military leaders said the attack was a mistake. The Syrian government said it was deliberate. This January, US air strikes destroyed the electricity plant at the Omar oilfield – the last one to supply the city. Since then only a few military generators and dwindling fuel supplies are left for medical and communication equipment.
Russia is the only hope for those who stand up to the terrorist threat. Russian aid has been vital to support the population and the defenders of the besieged capital of the province. The mission is a bumpy road. Even helicopter landing at the airport is only possible at night and by taking very high risks. But without Russia’s humanitarian efforts, the city inhabitants and their defenders would be completely cut off.
Relief by ground forces and ground supplies are not possible as Deir ez-Zor is more than 100 km away from the nearest Syrian government forces’ positions west of Palmyra. The desert in between is under the terrorists’ control. More than 100,000 civilian inhabitants of Deir ez-Zor and thousands of Syria’s soldiers defending them are in immediate danger of being murdered by savage IS forces. The current situation is a direct consequence of the United States’ non-action. US non-intervention enabled IS reinforcements from Mosul and west Iraq to Deir ez-Zor in east-Syria.
While planning the Mosul offensive in 2016, the US insisted on leaving a western corridor open for IS forces to let them flee from Mosul toward Deir ez-Zor. Russia, Syria and Iran asked the Iraqi government to do something about it. In late October, 2016, Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi dispatched the Popular Mobilization militias to cut off the escape route. But thousands of fighters had already used the corridor to flee across the border towards Deir ez-Zor with weapons. They had reinforced the terrorist forces now attacking the capital of the province.
With its uncontested air superiority over west Iraq and east Syria, the US did nothing to prevent the militants from moving to the new battlefield. No significant US air attacks have been targeted against IS forces in the Syrian province.
IS leaders are experienced and far-sighted people who know how to calculate. They are not just moving somewhere away from the fight they have no chance to win. There is method to their madness. Syrian government forces control parts of the province. The Syrian government views the American military and US-supported formations as invaders. If the US-led Syria Democratic Forces (SDF) move to Deir-ez-Zor in pursuit of IS, there’ll be a chance to provoke a clash. That’s exactly what the Islamic State wants.
Who’ll fight the IS militants in Deir-ez-Zor? The province is mainly a desert – a very special terrain to conduct combat actions on. Turkey is interested in taking part in the Raqqa offensive but will it be equally interested in joining the anti-IS forces in Deir-ez-Zor? Hardly so, its goal is control over the northern part of Syria to establish a buffer zone and prevent the Kurds-dominated areas from being linked. The SDF? Probably yes till the force is led by the US.
President Trump will have his ratings move up rapidly if the IS is squashed. He needs a victory against the IS to show he honors the pre-election pledges. Capturing Raqqa with the IS militants changing location to continue the fight is meaningless. Fighting the militants in Deir-ez-Zor appears to be inevitable. But the president vowed to rout the IS, not to get his country dragged into a conflict with the Russia-supported Syrian government. To focus on the IS terrorists and avoid clashes with Syria, he needs someone to communicate with Damascus. Without cooperating with Russia, the mission is impossible.
And it’s not IS movement to Deir-ez-Zor from Raqqa and Mosul only. The most interesting developments often miss the mainstream media headlines, for instance the secretive massing of US troops and military equipment on the Syria-Jordan border. The US-led coalition could prepare a large-scale military operation in southern Syria. The goal of the operation will likely be to get control over the Syrian-Iraqi border and to reach Deir ez-Zor.
The US-led coalition forces are preparing to launch an offensive from Jordan against terrorists-controlled Abu Kamal – a city on the Euphrates river in the Deir ez-Zor governorate of eastern Syria near the border with Iraq. The possibility of a buffer zone in southern Syria, enforced by Jordanian troops with American logistical support, is under consideration.
The American troops have been stationed at a Jordanian military base north of Amman about 35 miles from the border since the end of joint exercise Operation Eager Lion. About 20 US Army armoured vehicles have been recently transported by Ro-Ro transport ship Liberty Passion which had arrived to the Jordanian port of Al-Aqapa. The war preparations started after President Trump received King Abdullah of Jordan at the White House on April 5. In his interview with the Washington Post, the king released statements of concern on the «geographical continuity between Iran, Iraq, Syria and Hezbollah», emphasizing the presence of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards stationed 70 kilometers away from the border with Jordan.
Russia has a role to play. Jordan coordinated its activities closely with Moscow since late 2015. A joint monitoring center was established in Amman to focus on intelligence sharing and de-confliction. King Abdullah met with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow in January, not long after Russia had invited Jordan to participate in the Syrian peace negotiations in Astana, Kazakhstan. Moscow is the only actor able to keep Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias away from the Jordanian border. An operation against the IS in the southern part of Syria may lead to confrontation with Syria, not the IS. If it’s not the goal, then coordinating the activities with Russia is a must.
Again, Moscow is the only pertinent actor who can de-conflict and mediate. It leads once again to the conclusion that the fight against the Islamic State cannot be effective without some form of cooperation between Russia and the US.