AMMAN: Civilians are fearing “mass executions” among the 100,000 people trapped in regime-held districts in the eastern Syrian capital of Deir e-Zor on Wednesday as the Islamic State battles for control, street by street.
The Islamic State, which already controls most of Deir e-Zor province, last week launched its fiercest campaign in more than a year to capture the provincial capital’s few remaining regime-controlled districts in addition to the critical military airport directly to the southeast.
Located in the desert about 100km west of the Iraq border, the Islamic State and regime forces have lived uneasily alongside each other for years, each attempting to vanquish the other. IS had established a loose cordon around the airport, but has been unable to break through despite the most recent campaign featuring a roster of suicide bombers and heavy artillery, among other usual tactics.
Before Friday’s campaign, the airport and the handful of regime-controlled districts in the provincial capital to the north were connected by a single supply route, the N4. Because of the encirclement, food and matériel have been airdropped since 2014 over the six-kilometer-squared airport, and then distributed to residents of regime-controlled districts.
Earlier this week, on Monday, the Islamic State cut the N4 that links the airport to the regime-controlled districts in Deir e-Zor city. This is the first time IS has taken large swaths of the oil-rich, eastern desert province since a lightening advance in the summer of 2014 following the capture of Mosul in neighboring Iraq.
The Islamic State has gained several square kilometers of territory since the start of their campaign on Friday, launching near-hourly assaults on the regime-held pockets.
Regime’s ‘beating heart’ in Deir e-Zor
By dividing the capital city through piecemeal conquests since 2014, the Islamic State effectively isolated the two regime-controlled districts of al-Joura and al-Qasour, located less than 5km from the military airport. Surrounded for miles in every direction by Islamic State territory, the regime projected its power in the region through this airport. For more than two years, Assad has ordered airstrikes against Islamic State positions from the airport, deep behind enemy lines, making it a long-coveted victory for IS.
The weapons-loaded Deir e-Zor military airport is the “beating heart” of the regime’s presence in the eponymous desert province, Ali Layli, the executive director of the pro-opposition Deir e-Zor 24 news site, which maintains a network of correspondents inside the province, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.
“Simply put, it’s the most important military position that the regime has in the area,” Layli said. “The fall of the military airport means that Assad will lose the rest of Deir e-Zor in no time at all.”
Since the Islamic State campaign began last Friday, scores on both sides have been killed. While the Islamic State has leaned heavily on suicide car bombs and highly trained Iraqi reinforcements from Ninevah, the regime has largely held off the former’s advances given its superiority in the air. Since the start of the fighting, Russian and regime warplanes have executed more than 100 airstrikes, Deir e-Zor 24’s Ali Layli told Syria Direct.
Beyond the airport, what looks like a full-blown assault on the remaining regime presence in Deir e-Zor extends to the districts of al-Joura and al-Qasour, where one female resident trapped there described no available meat or vegetables, and a diet of mostly beans as battles rage outside.
“Nobody dares to leave their homes,” she said. “We’ve locked our doors and all we hear are the constant sounds of the fighting and the rumors that IS will execute every last resident of this district.”
The Qasour resident said the talk of mass executions could be Islamic State propaganda, but “when they enter, people will be very afraid.”
There is “so much fear,” said Ali Layli from the Deir e-Zor 24 news site, “truly terror that civilians have of a possible massacre if the Islamic State takes control of these blockaded neighborhoods.”