The Syrian regime is conducting a multi-axis offensive against the Islamic State’s stronghold in the Deir Ezzor province in eastern Syria. Russian support, including the negotiation of safe zones and air support, has been essential to the ongoing offensive. The Assad government, along with Iranian-backed fighters and its Russian allies, are advancing from both the west and the north, as depicted in the map above.
A victory in Deir Ezzor would be a landmark event for the regime, as its forces have been besieged by the Islamic State’s jihadists at the Deir Ezzor Airbase and the 137th Mechanized Army Base since July 2014. In January, the self-declared caliphate launched its own offensive in the city of Deir Ezzor, effectively cutting the Assad regime’s positions in two.
Therefore, turning the tide of battle in Deir Ezzor would be a boon for the regime. Furthermore, the province is rich in natural resources and provides access to Iraq, where other Iranian-backed forces are stationed.
The recent Russian safe zones in western Syria have facilitated the regime’s eastern offensive. Russia has implemented three safe zones in western Syria, including one with the United States. According to pro-regime news sources, the safe zones have “freed up tens of thousands of troops”, including the elite Republican Guards. The eastern offensive is likely the intended effect of the Russian safe zones. A Russian military briefing in early May indicated that Syrian troops would advance toward the Euphrates River Valley following the establishment of safe zones.
Palmyra: The principal approach capitalizes on regime control of Palmyra in the Homs province to project force eastward towards Deir Ezzor. The regime recaptured Palmyra in March 2017, after three months of Islamic State control. The regime has continued to progress along the M20 highway, retaking Suknah earlier this month. Pro-regime sources describe Russian air support as “imperative” to the Suknah offensive. According to a pro-Assad news source, at least two Iranian-affiliated units are participating in this offensive: the Syrian Army 5th Corp, which includes embedded Hezbollah commanders, and Liwa al-Fatemiyoun, an Iranian proxy composed of Afghan fighters.
Raqqa: The regime has also cleared terrain in the countryside southeast of the city of Raqqa, opening a northern approach along the Euphrates. The regime is currently advancing towards the village of al-Jabar, located approximately 55 kilometers southeast of Raqqa. The US-backed, Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are presently clearing Raqqa city, which US officials estimate is 55% complete. Russian airpower is supporting the regime, with strikes further down the Euphrates between Madan and al-Tabni. A commander in the region’s elite Tiger Forces assessed that regime forces will reach Deir Ezzor on this axis by early September, according to pro-regime media.
Both the US and the Assad regime are attempting to mobilize local fighters to defeat the Islamic State in the Euphrates River Valley.
The US is training Syrian militants to operate in the Middle Euphrates River Valley at a garrison in Tanf, a border crossing to Iraq in southeastern Syria. Jaish Maghawir al-Thawra, a US-backed Syrian rebel group, is reportedly in discussions to be transported from Tanf to Shaddadi in order to battle the Islamic State in Deir Ezzor.
The regime, however, is mobilizing its own local fighters for its eastern offensive. Tribal fighters, including from the Sunni Shaitat tribe, have mobilized as Suqur al-Furat (Euphrates Falcons) to support the regime’s advance towards Deir Ezzor. According to Al Masdar News, a pro-Assad outlet, Syrian Arab Army (SAA) commander Major General Mohammad Khaddour emphasized the role of the Suqur al-Furat in the Suknah operation. The Shaitat tribe previously rejected the Islamic State’s presence in eastern Syria, resulting in the massacre of approximately 700 members in 2014.
As the battle raged in recent weeks, the Islamic State’s media arms claimed that Assad’s forces have suffered heavy casualties. It is impossible to verify the self-declared caliphate’s claims, but the jihadists clearly aren’t going to give up Deir Ezzor without a fight. The organization has moved some of its leaders to the province, prompting a string of targeted airstrikes by the US-led coalition.