Hundreds of families flee south across open desert amid battle for Syria’s oil-rich east

AMMAN: Hundreds of Syrians from rural Deir e-Zor are fleeing south to the Rukban displacement camp along the Syrian-Jordanian border, activists within the camp told Syria Direct on Thursday, as regime and allied forces advance on their hometowns in the oil-rich eastern desert.

An estimated 50 families—roughly 250 people—have arrived in the Rukban displacement camp “per day” since the beginning of October, after regime and rival US-backed forces launched separate offensives along the Euphrates River in central Deir e-Zor province last month,  Mohammad Ahmad a-Darbas, president of the camp’s local civilian council told Syria Direct.

Nearly 280 kilometers southwest of the Deir e-Zor battles, newly displaced families in Rukban say they are fleeing regime forces in Deir e-Zor province, on the southwestern bank of the Euphrates River. In Rukban, they are constructing simple mud homes on the outskirts of the main settlement—itself more a makeshift sprawl of tents and mud houses than a formal displacement camp—local citizen journalist Emad Abu Sham said.

Among the families reaching Rukban are those from Mayadeen, who fled as regime forces approached the town, Rukban-based activist Abu Salem told Syria Direct on Thursday. Last weekend, Syrian regime forces announced that they had captured Mayadeen, along the Euphrates River, from the Islamic State.

Displaced Syrians in Rukban camp on Thursday. Photo courtesy of Abu Salem.

Battle for Deir e-Zor Province

In early September, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces broke through a three-year Islamic State siege of two holdout, regime-held districts in Deir e-Zor’s provincial capital. Days later, the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces announced the launch of their own Deir e-Zor campaign, moving south from their positions in Raqqa province to capture more Islamic State territory.

The two campaigns are racing to capture territory in Syria’s oil-rich eastern desert, each fighting on opposing sides of the Euphrates River, which runs through the center of Deir e-Zor province.

For residents in the towns and villages now caught along the Deir e-Zor frontlines, the two simultaneous military offensives are raining down airstrikes and artillery fire along both sides of the river, prompting civilians to stream out from their homes.

Earlier this month, an estimated 95,000 Deir e-Zor residents—men, women and children—fled their homes, UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told reporters at a press conference last Friday. The displaced are heading toward other towns within Deir e-Zor province, Mahecic told reporters, or north to neighboring Al-Hasakah province, which is controlled by a semi-autonomous, majority-Kurdish government.

New shelters in Rukban on Thursday as families arrive from Deir e-Zor. Photo courtesy of Abu Salem.

But all of the bridges crossing the Euphrates are today “cut off,” meaning residents along the southwestern bank cannot seek refuge north in the displacement camps within Kurdish-run territory, Rukban activist Abu Salem told Syria Direct.

So the displaced fled south instead, crossing the open regime-held desert in vehicles headed toward Rukban—an impoverished, hard-to-reach settlement, known as a last resort for families fleeing eastern Syria in search of safety.

“There are families who were separated from one another along the way because they couldn’t all flee together in one vehicle,” Abu Salem said. The current wave of displacement to Rukban is in its tenth day, the activist said, as families move south through the desert “without food or water.”  

Syria Direct reached out on Thursday to two officials from UNICEF, the entity responsible for the two pipelines that run water into Rukban. Both officials said they had “no information” about the uptick in displaced families arriving to Rukban in recent weeks.

One of the two UNICEF-funded water pipelines sputters regularly, cutting off the camp’s sole source of free, clean water. Deadly disease spreads quickly, and lawlessness reigns as gunmen reportedly roam the tents. Aid organizations cannot directly access the site, after Jordan shuttered the border last year when an Islamic State suicide attack killed seven soldiers at a border outpost.

Still, Rukban sits in relative safety, within the 55-kilometer radius around a US-run military base on Syria’s southeastern border with Iraq. The area,known as the “deconfliction zone,” in part straddles the Syrian-Iraqi border, and was established following an agreement between the US and Russia in 2015 to prevent territorial intrusions between the two rival sides.

 

Bahira al-Zarier

Bahira is from Damascus. She studied business and marketing before moving to Jordan in 2013. She did volunteer work in support of many refugee organizations before joining Syria Direct.

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali

Mohammed Al-Haj Ali, originally from Daraa, had completed his first year studying Broadcast Journalism at Damascus University before leaving Syria in August 2012.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.