Regime ‘breaks’ three-year Islamic State siege of Deir e-Zor city: SAA source

AMMAN: Regime forces fought their way into Deir e-Zor city on Tuesday, “breaking through” a three-year Islamic State siege of regime-held holdout districts of the provincial capital after sweeping across Syria’s eastern desert, a regime army source on the ground told Syria Direct.

Syrian Arab Army forces initially pushed through Islamic State defenses over the course of Tuesday morning, reaching allied soldiers in Brigade 137—a regime military base on the outskirts of Deir e-Zor city encircled by the Islamic State since 2014, the SAA source said.

The base is adjacent to one of the two besieged regime-held pockets in the city proper, where thousands of civilians have been trapped behind an IS encirclement since the group’s sweeping advances in 2014.

Tuesday’s breakthrough was a “huge victory” for Syrian regime forces in Deir e-Zor, now poised to battle the Islamic State for the remainder of the group’s second-largest city in Syria, the source added. “This is a major accomplishment for our forces in the fighting to liberate all of Syria.”  

“Soldiers and civilians alike are celebrating today.”

But after a lightning offensive across the largely barren, open desert to Deir a-Zor, regime forces likely “do not retain the capability” to sustain urban advances, Chris Kozak, a researcher at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War told Syria Direct on Tuesday. Instead, “the pro-regime coalition will likely focus on…reinforcing its remaining regime-held districts” rather than street-by-street battles similar to those taking place 100km northwest in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital.

Pro-regime forces enter Deir e-Zor city on Tuesday. Photo courtesy of SANA.

Islamic State forces encircled most of the city of Deir e-Zor, 100km west of the border with Iraq, in the summer of 2014. Two pockets remained under regime control—one in the city’s west, fortified by the SAA’s Brigade 137 garrison, and the second to the south, home to a regime airbase.

In January 2017, an IS offensive cut the highway connecting the two halves of the northeastern provincial capital, leaving the two districts both besieged and severed from one another, Syria Direct reported at the time.

The end of the siege of Brigade 137 was a long time coming. For years, regime helicopters have dropped food, ammunition and supplies to sustain the thousands of soldiers, officers and civilians trapped inside an airtight encirclement. Countless previous offensives to drive the Islamic State away from the airbase had, for the most part, failed, inducing a stalemate. For the tens of thousands of civilians living in regime-held neighborhoods adjacent to the airport, their fates have been similar, living in a state of privation and almost totally reliant on airdrops just to survive.

Some residents inside Deir e-Zor’s regime-held neighborhoods say that Tuesday’s advance brought a sense of renewed—if not cautious—hope for a return to normal life.  

“Yes, we are at the hands of the regime,” Khoula, a woman living in the Qasour neighborhood, told Syria Direct. “But three years of [IS-enforced] siege were enough to exhaust us.”

Residents in her neighborhood “prefer the regime over Daesh,” she said, using the Islamic State’s Arabic acronym. “We’re just hoping that the breakage of this siege can mean the gradual return of life to Deir e-Zor, so basic supplies can come in.”

She described scenes of celebration on Tuesday afternoon, as weary neighbors exchanged congratulations and fired celebratory gunshots into the air.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the advances on Tuesday “a resounding victory over takfiri terrorist thinking” in a phone call with regime soldiers and officers, state media outlet SANA reported.

The SAA’s entrance into Deir e-Zor represents a “major point for expanding military operations in the area…and eliminating remaining IS strongholds in the area,” the general commander of Syria’s armed forces said in a statement broadcast on state television.

The advance comes as part of a months-long military push toward Deir a-Zor. The SAA and allied militias captured thousands of square kilometers west of the city from the Islamic State last month, driving the group’s fighters from their easternmost holdings in the central Syrian desert. 

Waleed Khaled a-Noufal

Waleed a-Noufal was born in Ankhel in northern Daraa province. He attended high school in Ankhel but could not continue his study because of security reasons. Waleed worked as an activist in his local city council and the Umayya Media Center. In 2013, he moved to Jordan and finished his high school degree. Waleed wants to bring about a solution to the current crisis through his reporting.

Noura Hourani

Noura Hourani studied English Literature at Tishreen University and previously worked as a private English tutor. She left Syria at the beginning of the conflict.

Mohammad Abdulssattar Ibrahim

Mohammad is from Amouda in Hasakah province. He moved to Jordan in 2004. Mohammad started work with the Syrian Revolution LCC in Amman by doing reporting and coordinating protests. After that he did volunteer work for refugees in Amman.

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.

Kristen Demilio

Kristen Gillespie Demilio has more than 10 years of experience reporting from the Middle East while based in Amman. She regularly contributed to news outlets including CBS News Radio, NPR, The Jerusalem Report and PBS and is a graduate of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism as well as the Institut Français des Etudes Arabes in Damascus.