Deir ez-Zour: Widespread Destruction After ISIS Defeat

On the 3rd of November, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) has achieved one of its most important victories over the course of the country’s six-year conflict when it took full control of Deir ez-Zour City from ISIS militants. The full capture of the city marks the end to the brutal battles that have raged there since 2012.

It was in 2012 that the rebels first made an appearance in Syria’s largest eastern city, under the Flag of the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The appearance of the FSA and its subsequent battles with the SAA saw the destruction of the city’s famous suspension bridge, as well as widespread shelling. The fighting intensified in 2013 when the al-Qaeda-affiliated Jabhat al-Nusra supplanted the FSA, capturing much of the city except for the city’s western districts which remained under SAA control, as well as the Deir ez-Zour Military Airbase. Things took a turn for the worse when ISIS supplanted Jabhat al-Nusra, putting the SAA-held parts under a brutal siege in 2014. Since then, the city seemed to have been forgotten amidst the wider conflict in the country.

Through it all, civilians across the city bore the brunt of the fighting. ISIS militants shelled the SAA-held districts daily, committing massacres when they could. Meanwhile, the siege conditions led to shortages of virtually every vital supply, leading to outbreaks of diseases. Although aid was often delivered through airdrops, there were not always reliable. The SAA, in turn, launched frequent airstrikes targeting ISIS-held parts of the city, often causing heavy collateral damage and civilian casualties in order to keep hold of its side of the city.

The siege was only broken in September 2017, allowing ground support and aid to reach the SAA-held parts of the city for the first time in three years. The government forces have since encircled the ISIS-held areas but refrained from entering them due to other priorities, such as Mayadin City. Only in November did the government forces turn their attention back to the city centre, launching an operation to clear ISIS militants still holed up.

With images of the city centre emerging since the defeat of the militants, it is evident that the siege and the subsequent battle took a heavy toll. Nearly every building in the city has been damaged or partially destroyed. Historic locations such as the city’s famous Armenian Church are no exceptions. The streets are empty and appear to be deserted. Much of the city’s population has fled. Furthermore, the militants have rigged many of the remaining buildings with explosives, leaving the city a dangerous place even without militant presence. Indeed, Tuesday saw news of four reporters being injured after triggering an IED.

With the city secured, the SAA has moved towards the town of Albu Kamal on the Iraqi Border. It is ISIS’ last stronghold in Syria. Meanwhile, Deir ez-Zour itself will embark on the long and difficult path to reconstruction.