by Jennifer Cafarella
Following the declaration of a caliphate by ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, a cascade of surrenders by rebel and tribal brigades in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province conferred large swaths of territorial control to ISIS. Beginning on July 2, these advances dramatically changed the balance of power within the province and provided ISIS the opportunity to achieve territorial continuity along the Euphrates River into Iraq’s al-Anbar. However, local resistance has since emerged to challenge full ISIS control within Syria’s Deir ez-Zour. While this resistance is currently too localized to meaningfully challenge the ISIS advance, it nonetheless highlights the existence of groups willing to serve as counter-ISIS forces within the ISIS Euphrates system. As ISIS continues to harden its defenses across its newly integrated Iraq and Syria theaters, the continued existence of local opposition will remain a crucial indicator of opportunities to disrupt ISIS control.
The surrender of a large number of local rebel and tribal brigades to ISIS in Syria’s Deir ez-Zour province was not a spontaneous event. Rather, it was the outcome of individual settlements between ISIS and local leaders regarding the terms of a peaceful ISIS occupation. Driven by apprehension in the wake of ISIS’s success in Iraq, a number of local leaders sought to avoid an armed takeover by reinvigorated ISIS forces and agreed to a set of ISIS-imposed conditions for the peaceful surrender of rebel forces. These terms included the repentance of residents and fighters, the relinquishment of personal weapons, and a full civilian evacuation of surrendered towns for a period of 10 days. While resulting in a temporary humanitarian crisis within the province due to the creation of tens of thousands of displaced persons, these agreements allowed ISIS to quickly and efficiently assert full control over a large swath of territory whose armed takeover would have otherwise required a significant and costly ISIS ground offensive. Critically, further surrenders have occurred as ISIS began to consolidate. In the border town of Abu Kamal, the small local FSA brigades Ahl al-Athar, Ibn al-Qa'im, and Aisha pledged allegiance to Baghdadi on July 7, solidifying ISIS control over the town and neighboring countryside. In Subaykhan and neighboring towns, twelve rebel and tribal brigades announced their surrender to ISIS on July 8 and pledged bay’ah to Baghdadi. From the town of al-Tiana, fighters from localized Ahrar al-Sham- and JN-affiliated brigades declared their allegiance to ISIS on July 10. Finally, the al-Mujahideen and Bani Zaid batallions are reported to have begun to deliver their weapons to ISIS in the first step of their full surrender. In addition to providing an additional windfall of small arms, these surrenders have expanded ISIS’s zones of control on the western bank of the Euphrates River and sustained the current ISIS momentum within the province.
ISIS mobilization to solidify control and institute governance in newly acquired territory is underway as ISIS negotiators pursue further surrenders. Using the operating space provided by the temporary evacuation of civilian populations, ISIS cleared and secured recently surrendered towns, removing symbols of past rebel control as it begins to impose its governance. Following the civilian evacuation from as-Shahil, ISIS destroyed the home of a leader of the local Liwa al-Taliban al-Islamiyya on July 5 and vacated homes of two JN commanders and a number of other houses in the town. Seven houses that had belonged to JN commanders were also destroyed in the village of al-Dahla. In consolidating its control over returning civilian populations, ISIS has instituted a central repentance office in the Islamic Court in the town of al-Mayadin and demanded that all fighters and civilians present themselves to the office with two forms of identification in order to formalize their repentance. This demand extends even to those who had repented to an ISIS authority in the past, who must now take their proof of repentance to the al-Mayadin Islamic Court for renewal. Internal policing has also begun, with ISIS executing three men on July 13 under the accusation that they had been creating counter-ISIS cells. In addition to raiding shops, homes, and vehicles for contraband, ISIS has begun to institute service provision by distributing gasoline to civilians under its control. After seizing control of nearly all Deir ez-Zour’s oil fields, ISIS distributed gasoline in its northeastern stronghold of as-Shaddadi, and reportedly intends to conduct such distributions in all areas under its control, from Abu Kamal on the Iraqi border to Northern Aleppo, as well as its tiny enclaves in the countryside of Hama and Homs. ISIS also significantly reduced the price of oil to civilians under its control and capped the maximum price traders can impose on other groups. These measures are the first stages of the full imposition of ISIS state governance, which will continue to unfold in secured territory according to the model visible in the ISIS capital of ar-Raqqa.
However, while the ability of ISIS to negotiate the wholesale surrender of rebel and tribal forces within the province has been staggering, resistance has nonetheless emerged in a number of key areas. In immediate defiance of the caliphate, the FSA-affiliated Liwa Jund al-Rahman put out a statement rejecting ISIS and declaring its commitment to continue to fight. In the towns of Abu Hamam and al-Jorzi on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River, the local Ibn al-Qayyem Brigade and al-Hamza Battalion attacked the homes of ISIS fighters and other ISIS positions on July 5 and 6. Demonstrations also occurred in the towns of al-Qureyyi and al-Ashara, where an unknown explosion targeted the agricultural bank on July 7. Finally, the resistance of the Jafar al-Tiyar brigade has precluded full control over Deir ez-Zour’s oil wells by keeping the al-Ward oil field momentarily outside of ISIS control. In the stronghold of al-Mayadin, a suicide car bomb (SVBIED) targeted a public market on July 13, killing 13 including 5 non-Syrian ISIS fighters. The attack remains unclaimed. The defiance of these individual rebel brigades constitutes a critical resistance to ISIS within the province. However, in the absence of outside support it is one that is likely to succumb once ISIS completes its consolidation and reinitiates offensive operations. For this reason, these brigades may continue to resist only so long as the terms of the negotiated surrender remain as severe as those imposed on the initial wave of surrenders. Testament to this possibility, a temporary surge in resistance against ISIS forces in the town of Khosham emerged after initial negotiations with local brigades failed but immediately dissipated once a settlement was reached. Upon the breakdown of talks, fighters from the Abdullah ibn al-Zobayr battalion attacked ISIS positions within the town, killing three fighters and burning the house of a fighter from the town who had defected to ISIS. An agreement was reached on July 10 in which civilians that had fled the town would be allowed to return so long as each family repented and delivered a Kalashnikov to ISIS. While it remains unclear whether the terms of this agreement also mandated a demobilization of the ibn al-Zobayr battalion, attacks appear to have been discontinued. The ability of ISIS to negotiate a settlement within actively resisting localities is a critical indicator of its strength within the province and highlights the likely inability of local groups to maintain resistance even in the medium term.
Two additional sets of negotiations are ongoing, and their outcome is likely to have significant implications for the continued existence of a moderate Syrian opposition within Deir ez-Zour Province. On the eastern bank of the Euphrates, the al-She’tat tribe remains a primary source of resistance to ISIS. The towns of Granij, Abu Hamam, and Keshkeyyi all remain under the control of the tribe, with a total population reportedly near 83,000. Fighters and civilians from al-She’tat continue to resist through demonstrations against ISIS and participation in attacks alongside local rebel brigades, however the tribe’s leadership has nonetheless continued to negotiate with ISIS regarding the terms of its surrender. In addition, other remaining local rebel and tribal brigades in the western countryside of Deir ez-Zour are reportedly also engaged in ongoing negotiations with ISIS and have declared their own set of terms. These include the stipulations that ISIS: (1) enter their towns with only non-Syrian fighters, (2) refrain from carrying out arrests or weapons confiscations, (3) cooperate in fighting against regime forces within the province, and (4) establish a joint Sharia body consisting of both local leaders and ISIS religious officials. While it is unclear whether these terms are congruent with those demanded by the al-She’tat tribe, in both cases ISIS appears to be maintaining its demand for the handover of all rebel weapons as a prerequisite for surrender. As a result, negotiations remain in a stalemate. If ISIS submits to these demands in order to neutralize these remaining pockets of resistance, it will have obtained effective control over nearly the entirety of Deir ez-Zour province. It will also have engaged in a significant step change within its Syria theatre, as direct confrontation against the regime has not yet manifested to a meaningful degree. If such an agreement occurs, an attack on regime positions in Deir ez-Zour city is likely to follow, a departure from historic ISIS trajectory that would likely have repercussions in other provinces, as rebel brigades may recalculate their opposition to ISIS in favor of bringing its force to bear against the regime. However, the ability of JN to consolidate its own ranks will also be a significant factor influencing the strategic calculus of remaining rebel forces, and may encourage increased rebel participation on either side in a further entrenchment of the ongoing JN-ISIS feud. Thus both the ISIS expansion and a reactionary JN consolidation are equally grave for the moderate Syrian opposition, whose relative influence continues to dwindle proportionate to the growing strength of these Jihadi elements.
Deir ez-Zour City
The ISIS momentum in the province has also translated into an ISIS foothold deep within Deir ez-Zour city. While not directly attributed to ISIS, pressure has increased on rebels within the city: an unknown explosion occurred in al-Jebelia neighborhood on July 11 and an IED detonated inside a JN HQ on the Fo’ad cinema street on July 12 alongside another IED detonation in the area. Combined with the strain of the ongoing siege, this pressure prompted JN and Ahrar al-Sham to abandon their headquarters inside the city on July 13 after a failed attempt to negotiate with ISIS. Following this withdrawal, ISIS fighters entered the city and seized control of a number of neighborhoods and the Sharia court while maintaining firm control of the al-Siyasa bridge. It is unclear how the JN and Ahrar al-Sham retreat was conducted, however it is likely these forces executed a tactical withdrawal from a number of locations in order to fortify their presence deeper within the city. There has been no indication that ISIS allowed rebel forces to withdraw across the al-Siyasa bridge, and it is equally unlikely these forces were allowed to exit the city through regime territory. According to official ISIS social media, JN emir Abu Hazem attempted to escape the city across the bridge and was shot at an ISIS checkpoint as he attempted to detonate a suicide belt following the discovery of his identity at the checkpoint. Within the city, ISIS arrested fighters from JN who reportedly hid inside a house as ISIS moved in to consolidate control, indicating that the tactical withdrawal may not have been fully disclosed or executed across rebel ranks. In response to the ISIS advance, a demonstration occurred in the remaining rebel-held areas in which demonstrators rejected an allegiance with ISIS. However, following the loss of territory within the city the now-isolated pockets of rebel fighters remain under a two-front siege by the regime and ISIS, and it is unlikely they will be able to mount a significant counterattack against ISIS within the city.
ISIS has not yet launched an assault against regime positions in or near Deir ez-Zour city. However, in addition to achieving a new proximity to regime forces within the city’s contested neighborhoods, ISIS is now in control of positions that may enable it to directly assault the Deir ez-Zour military airport from two fronts. Prior to the incursion into the city, ISIS fighters seized the town of al-Mar’iya directly to the east of the airport on July 7. While rumors immediately surfaced that the Syrian regime began to withdraw from the Deir ez-Zour military airport, this appears to have been small tactical withdrawal of non-critical elements rather than a full retreat. Regime forces were subsequently videotaped establishing barricades on the mountain overlooking the city and have since mobilized on the western side of the al-Hawiqa neighborhood in the north western corner of the city. Following the ISIS incursion, regime forces reinforced their checkpoints and set up new barriers within their areas of control and are likely to continue their holding pattern in the absence of a significant ISIS offensive operation against the military airbase or the remaining regime-held neighborhoods.
If ISIS is able to finish its consolidation along the Euphrates and to secure and expand its foothold within Deir ez-Zour city it will have obtained a strategic depth across the Jazeera desert that is likely to render a successful routing of its presence from Iraq’s Anbar both a pitched fight and a necessary but insufficient measure in order to secure the control and integrity of Iraq’s sovereign borders. Its implications for the Syrian civil war are equally severe, as a consolidated ISIS in Deir ez-Zour is unlikely to be unseated by existing rebel forces. While the opportunity exists to subvert ISIS control by strengthening local rebel and tribal groups that have or would be willing to resist, this window of opportunity as ISIS remains in its consolidation phase is likely to be fleeting. A rebel alignment with JN as a bulwark against increasingly strong ISIS forces should be viewed as a dangerous course of action, yet it becomes increasingly likely as ISIS expansion continues to go unchecked.