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Saturday, January 21, 2017

Can Syria save Deir-Ez-Zor?

Far out into Syria's rural east lies a small city on the Euphrates River called Deir-Ez-Zor.

According to the 2004 census, about 210,000 people called this city home.

Today, like much of Syria, it is engulfed in a vicious and bloody Civil War. On all sides, Islamic State militants surround this ancient city. ISIS controls some portions of the city. In other areas, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) soldiers of the Republican Guard, an elite division loyal to President Bashar Al-Assad and commanded by Major General Issam Zahreddine.

Islamic State militants have tried time and again for the last two years to engulf the city under their shroud, and while there have been advances, Syrian forces have clung to their strongholds and prevented a complete takeover.

A victory in Deir-ez-Zor would present a small but important turning of the tide for Islamic State in Syria.

Soldiers fighting under the banner of the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are currently advancing slowly but surely towards the de facto capital of Islamic State, Ar-Raqqa. If Raqqa falls but Islamic State manages to capture Deir-ez-Zor, the group will have a city to fall back to, especially with the Iraqi city of Mosul under siege and essentially half-liberated. With victory on the horizon in Iraq, ISIS may decide to retreat into Syria to put up heavier resistance there.

ISIS is in retreat on many different fronts, so a victory in Deir-ez-Zor would likely work to increase morale and enable the group to continue fighting for quite some time. Every advance to capture the city, however, has resulted in massive casualties and the Syrian soldiers have been nothing short of heroic.

Time, however, is not on the Syrian Arab Army's side. Despite this heroic resistance, it is not certain whether the city will or even can hold out long enough to be relieved by a friendlier force.

There are two different forces that may try to relieve this ancient city from Islamic State.

If the Syrian Arab Army manages to reach the city in time, it will represent a massive victory against the militants and greatly reduce the territory in the country controlled by ISIS.

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely for the time being that the SAA would come marching through. Forces loyal to Assad are exhausted from fighting for almost six years. Logistically, it would be extremely difficult to march all the way to the city because Deir-ez-Zor is far into the desert, isolated from the urban centres of the western parts of the country.

In addition, Syria's army recently suffered a considerable setback when militants recaptured the city of Palmyra. The road to Deir-ez-Zor runs through Palmyra, and the loss of the famous ancient city will make an offensive effort more costly and difficult, as well as more vulnerable from ISIS attacks in the open desert. The Syrian Arab Army is concentrated in the urban centres of the west-whether the exhausted fighting force can march all the way east is yet to be seen.

That leaves another opportunity open, however. Could the Syrian Democratic Forces march on the city and relieve the soldiers?

The Syrian Democratic Forces are closer to Deir-ez-Zor than the Syrian Arab Army, and are gaining recruits daily in the more rural parts of the country. But an operation to liberate Deir-ez-Zor would be a difficult undertaking all the same.

While the SDF has largely managed to hold on to their territory after launching offensives, Deir-ez-Zor is larger than any city they have taken before, not to mention the considerable presence of ISIS militants in the oil fields to the southeast of the city itself.

There's also the question of manpower-the SDF, since it is a young fighting force, is not as large as the SAA and would require a much proportionally larger mobilization of troops to fight in Deir-ez-Zor.

Despite the difficulties, the reward for the SDF if they were to successfully capture the city would be immense. If they liberate the city, the SAA soldiers who have been resisting for years finally get relief from fighting. The SAA and SDF, while not formal allies, are on cordial enough terms that they likely would be welcomed into the city. The victory would be the SDF's biggest and would boost already high morale among civilians in SDF controlled areas. The political aim of a federal, decentralized Syria with new rights for the Kurds would look within reach, and the SDF would also be within striking distance of both the oil fields (another source of income) and the Iraqi border, which will likely be secured within the next few months as the ISF moves farther west into Anbar province.

Perhaps most importantly though is the strategic importance of the city. A liberated Deir-ez-Zor would mean more control over the Euphrates for the SDF and another angle for their planned march on Islamic State's capital of Raqqa. The SDF already has the capability to march on Raqqa from the north and the west, taking Deir-ez-Zor would enable them to march up the Euphrates from the southeast as well.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Syria and Iraq: A Comprehensive Review, and a look towards the future

For the last five (going on six) years, Syria has been in the news, as forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad fight to keep control of their country from various other entities in a grueling Civil War. 

This war, unlike the conflict in Iraq, has grown into a complex multi-front proxy war. In Iraq, Kurdish Peshmerga forces hold the line on their considerably expanded border as the Iraqi Security Forces, along with Shia militias financed by the Islamic Republic of Iran, fight to evict the Islamic State terrorists from their country. 

In Iraq, the conflict is relatively straightforward. 

The Iraqi Security Forces, or ISF, are the main defense force for Iraq. They are represented by the areas in maroon. Once ridiculed for their fleeing considerably smaller Islamic State battalions, the ISF has found its footing and turned the tide decisively. 

Fighting with them are the Kurdish Peshmerga (in dark gold), a regional defense force which is tasked with the defense of Iraqi Kurdistan’s three provinces. Peshmerga ("Those who confront Death" in Kurdish) forces along with some minor allies such as Yazidi militias in the far northwest of the country, have not only held the line and kept Islamic State from taking their lands, but advanced and taken more villages in northern Iraq, including the city of Kirkuk. 

Also featured are the aforementioned Shia militias that are funded mainly by Iran. These groups are known collectively as the Popular Mobilization Units, or PMU. While effective in central Iraq, the PMU has been notably asked to refrain from reinforcing the siege of Mosul so as to avoid sectarian tensions in the overwhelmingly Sunni Muslim city. 

The main ongoing battle today is for the Iraqi city of Mosul. Mosul is one of the largest cities in Iraq; only Baghdad and Basra are larger. Once the Islamic State’s main stronghold in Iraq, Mosul is currently under siege by ISF forces from the east. 

Apologies for the map not being in English, this is the best one I could find (and I can't read Arabic either). Green areas have been captured by Iraqi forces, red areas are where there is fighting, and white represents areas where ISIS controls

The military campaign started late last year. Despite some early hiccups in execution, Iraqi troops looks to be progressing steadily. Islamic State forces have lost nearly a third of the city to the ISF, particularly the Golden Division, a special forces unit trained by the United States in previous years. 

A victory in Mosul is not guaranteed for Iraqi forces, but momentum is on their side. It is possible the entire eastern section of the city (Mosul is split into eastern and western sections by the Tigris River) could be liberated by the ISF by the middle of February,. Assuming the momentum holds, the smaller western section could be liberated sometime in April or May. 

Victory in Mosul would represent an enormously decisive turn of the tide for Iraqi forces. Islamic State militants once advanced as far as the outskirts of Iraq’s sprawling capital of Baghdad. If they lose Mosul, their control of the country will be reduced to a few considerably smaller cities near Mosul, the sprawling but sparsely populated Nineveh plains, a shrinking portion of predominantly rural Anbar province, and the area around the city of Hawija, which was surrounded by both the ISF and Kurdish forces months ago. 

There is a distinct possibility the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria could become merely the Islamic State of Syria by the summer of 2017. 

In Syria, things remain complicated. 

The above map of Syria shows the current state of affairs in the Civil War. 

Red represents the Syrian Arab Army, forces loyal to Bashar Al-Assad. The Syrian Arab Army, or SAA, has been through nearly six years of siege from other entities, but they still manage to hold control of the vast majority of Syria’s urban west. While they and their allies in the Kremlin suffered an embarrassing defeat when ISIS militants stormed and recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra, it is extremely difficult to imagine the SAA surrendering control of the urban centres in Syria, especially Syria’s largest city and recently recaptured hub of Aleppo. 

Assad’s forces, however, are exhausted, and the chance of them ruling over the entirety of Syria’s borders again look uncertain. 

In the northwest, represented by green and white, the Free Syrian Army and its Islamist allies Ahrar Al-Sham and Jabhat Al-Nusra (recently renamed “Jabhat Fateh Al-Sham” ) hunker down around the city of Idlib. This pocket of rebel Islamists seems to be the next priority of President Assad’s, but it will be a fierce, long and bloody fight to capture the area in its entirety, and the objective may not be done until late into 2017. 

Two other entities are vying for control and influence in the northwest. The green area between the two gold areas is another branch of the Free Syrian Army, but it is heavily supervised by thousands of members of the Turkish Armed Forces. Turkey invaded Syria months ago to prevent the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) from connecting into one continuous entity, and they seem to achieved that goal for now, but Operation Euphrates Shield, as it is called, has been mostly ineffective. Many of the Arab fighters in this area were poorly trained and lacked the motivation to fight that the SAA and SDF seem to possess in greater numbers. The Turkish Armed Forces, while well trained and well-equipped, have not made much movement towards the stated objective of the ISIS controlled city of Al-Bab, even being repelled a few times. A full assault on the city, moreover, could result in heavy casualties for the Turkish forces as well as the Arab forces they are allied with. Turkey has the strength to capture the city, but when that will happen is not certain, and even less certain is the stated objective of President Erdogan’s to then capture the city of Manbij, which is controlled by the Syrian Democratic Forces. 

Now to the last major entity in Syria, the Syrian Democratic Forces, or SDF. They are represented by the color gold in the map, and they are advancing towards the city of Ar-Raqqa, Islamic State’s de facto capital in a multi-stage operation entitled Wrath of the Euphrates. 

The Syrian Democratic Forces are a multiethnic coalition of Kurds, Arabs, and other smaller groups such as Armenians and Syriac Christians. Once a mainly Kurdish entity called the People’s Protection Units (or by the Kurdish initials of YPG), military success along the border with Turkey encouraged the group to expand and welcome Arabs and other ethnic groups into its rank and file. While the YPG (and its all-female counterpart the YPJ, or Women’s Protection Units) remains a distinct entity, the group is now more well-known by its more inclusive name. 

The result has been effective. Once surrounded by ISIS in the ravaged city of Kobane, the SDF coalition has carved out control of most of Syria’s northern border, extending deep into the south of Hasakah province. It has evicted ISIS from much of Syria’s rural north and east, and it is still advancing. The group hopes to surround and eventually capture the city of Ar-Raqqa, and then advance further south to the besieged SAA town of Deir-Ez-Zor, where a small but tenacious group of Republican Guard soldiers (a special forces unit, one of Syria’s most effective) loyal to Assad have put up heroic resistance against onsalught upon onslaught from Islamic State. While the SDF and SAA have distinctly conflicting goals for the future of Syria, and though they have come to blows a couple times, ceasefires have been effective and the groups have been able to coexist for the time being. If the SDF manages to free Deir-Ez-Zor from its siege, it will gain a large amount of goodwill with the SAA and will also be within striking distance of the oil fields to the east, where much of ISIS’s money is made. A march to the Iraqi border, while foreboding, would be possible as well, and would give the SDF control over most of the Euphrates River. 

Unfortunately, while it is often doted upon in the western media because of its stated aims for a democratic, federal Syria, and its use of feminism as a cornerstone of the group’s ideology, the SDF is not without its faults. 

A member of the Kurdish YPJ (Women's Protection Units) embraces a woman after assisting in the liberation of Manbij in northwestern Syria. 
Photo credit to the BBC. 

The YPG, its founding entity, still holds ties to the Kurdistan Workers’ Party, a left-wing militant terrorist group which has been a nasty thorn in the side of Turkey’s mainly Kurdish southeast since the late 1970s. While the group is secular (and therefore does not inspire the same fear as a group like ISIS or Al-Qaeda) and not uniformly considered a terrorist group, the Kurdistan Workers’ Party or PKK has employed ambushes on Turkish soldiers, suicide bombings, and feeds off public discontent and poverty much like Hamas does in Palestine. A strong SDF is cause for worry in Ankara, and not without good reason. 

Islamic State will be defeated, one way or another. But what happens next is also cause for fear. 

It’s been said many times before, but you can’t kill an ideology. Islamic State will die, but Islamism and Islamic fundamentalist terrorism will not die with it. Whether Syria can keep a lid on this poisonous ideology even after triumphing over ISIS is in serious doubt. The country has been through hell and will take generations to rebuild. Assad is still a bloodthirsty dictator who committed grave sins against his own people. 

While actual fisticuffs between the SAA and SDF have been thankfully rare so far, tensions between them very well could come to the forefront once ISIS is defeated. The SDF’s inclusion of Arabs into its ranks cuts into Assad’s influence, and the more land they capture from ISIS, the less the SAA will control at the end of the war. Whether war will break out between the two groups is uncertain, and there is an argument to be made that the SAA may not wish to fight a group which has included Arabs and helped defeated a common enemy (or may simply just be exhausted), the cruelty of the Assad government is not a fairy tale. 

What happens to Assad is even less certain. He likely will not be put in front of the International Criminal Court despite his transgressions because of support from Russia and Iran (and possibly even the United States, depending on President Trump) but he may be ordered to step aside after a few years and the country has stabilized. He may have no choice but to give the SDF-controlled areas some degree of autonomy as they continue to advance into more areas of Syria. 

And in Iraq, trouble may continue. Sectarian division may bubble up again after the war is won, and the Kurdish regions are still itching for independence. 

The road ahead is difficult and foggy for Syria and for Iraq. But with a lot of luck and shrewd negotiation, it may end up more peaceful and democratic than before. 

Many thanks to Wikipedia and Nineveh Media Centre for the maps, and to for their tireless work in documenting this conflict in painstaking detail.