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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.

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