May 12, 2014
More than 100,000 Syrians have fled Deir e-Zor province in recent weeks, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported Sunday, amidst a fierce power-struggle between the Islamic State in Iraq and a-Sham (ISIS) and rebels led by Jabhat a-Nusra in the eastern, oil-rich province bordering Iraq.
After months of stalemate, ISIS, the al-Qaeda offshoot whose power centers in the northeastern provinces of a-Raqqa and a-Hasakeh, has recently advanced. ISIS now claims the province’s western suburbs and has imposed a blockade on rebel troops inside Deir e-Zor’s provincial capital, where Syrian government forces retain a foothold.
For ISIS, control of Deir e-Zor would consolidate access to the province’s lucrative oil fields and its porous border with Iraq’s majority-Sunni western province of Anbar, where its combatants are engaged in a months-long insurgency against Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s government.
Deir e-Zor is strategic for ISIS because “they can connect Iraq and Syria here,” says Jasim, a 22-year-old spokesperson with the Islamic Front, combatting ISIS in Deir e-Zor.
Without a strong effort to drive out ISIS, Jasim tells Syria Direct’s Mohammed al-Haj Ali, it could “take full control over the province at any moment.”
Q: Does ISIS control strategically significant areas of Deir e-Zor at this point?
In the coming days, if ISIS’s army is revitalized, grows stronger and is able to gain the allegiances of tribes in the area, then they could at any moment take full control over the province, especially since they have occupied the only entrance into the city and have control over the resources like the Jafra and Konika oil fields.
A damaged bridge over the Euphrates River in Deir e-Zor province. Photo courtesy of Mohsin Alan Photographs.
Q: To what extent is ISIS advancing in Deir e-Zor?
ISIS currently has complete control over the western suburbs of the province and the right bank of the Euphrates, as well as partial control over al-Ma’amel and Douar al-Ma’amel, the northern suburbs and the south bank of the Khabur river. They have been besieging Deir e-Zour after the withdrawal of all [rebel] troops from the western suburbs.
The reason for the advance is that ISIS gathered all of its forces from Damascus and Iraq to take control of Deir e-Zor province. For three months, we in Deir e-Zor have engaged in a fierce and continuous battle with them, as other provinces have failed to open their fronts against ISIS.
Q: Can you estimate how many people have fled Der al-Zor because of the ISIS rule?
Thousands of people have left the regions under ISIS control and areas witnessing clashes. Many of the people fleeing are originally from the city of Deir e-Zor and Homs, and have fled to Shahil and a-Shamiah on the western bank of the Euphrates, and to the Shatilla villages as well.
Their conditions are very difficult and most are left with nothing. Also, they are going to places that are already suffering from overcrowding since they have been accepting displaced persons coming from regime-controlled regions. The overpopulation crisis has reached the point that people are taking residence in previously abandoned homes with no utilities.
Q: Why have the clashes intensified recently?
Because of ISIS’s advances into the heart of Deir e-Zor suburbs, which are very strategic locations.
Everyone is willing to sacrifice in order to protect the region and decisively end the clashes in their favor. This is especially true in the eastern suburbs in Basira, which is a former ISIS stronghold that connects the eastern suburbs and the city of Deir e-Zor via the “Siasiya” bridge.
Deir e-Zor is considered to be a very important strategic location for them since they can connect Iraq and Syria via this point, and remove the borders established by Sykes-Picot. Controlling Deir e-Zor creates a wide-open path from Iraq to Damascus, Hama, Homs, Idlib and Aleppo and even to a-Raqqa and Hasaka, since only the desert separates them.
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