Deir ez-Zour: The last ISIS stronghold in Syria

The Syrian province of Deir ez-Zour is witnessing significant strategic developments. For much of the time since 2014, ISIS was in near-total control of the province except for a pro-government enclave that was besieged in the provincial capital. Developments in Deir ez-Zour were often overshadowed by developments in the neighbouring provinces of Homs and Raqqa.

Things have changed significantly since. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) have been steadily gaining ground against the militants in Raqqa. The group took over much of the province and besieged the group’s main urban holdout in Raqqa City. Today, the militants only control only a few districts of the embattled city, their lines rapidly collapsing. The group has also taken control of other major provincial cities such as Tabqa.

The forces of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and its supporting militias, meanwhile, have been making a two-pronged push, one from Aleppo into southern Raqqa and other from Homs into Deir ez-Zour. Over the past two months alone, the government forces have secured much of the Raqqa-Deir ez-Zour Border and pushed ISIS militants out of Homs, except for a small besieged pocket near the Hama-Homs Border.

These developments, in conjunction with the group rapidly losing territory in Iraq has left Deir ez-Zour as the last stronghold of the militants and the focal point of attention. Flush from their recent victories and aware that controlling Deir ez-Zour is key to attaining legitimacy in eastern Syria, both the SDF and the SAA have been racing each other to maximise their territorial gains, backed by their respective international supporters, United States and Russia.

The dividends from controlling Deir ez-Zour are not just political but economic as well. The province contains some 40% of Syria’s oil and gas wealth, with eight major fields located primarily in the northern reaches. It also contains 30% of Syria’s agricultural wealth, such as grain and cotton. Finally, Deir ez-Zour is the main access point between Syria and Iraq. The porous border has long been used  by the militants to traverse between the two countries and controlling it would grant significant political and economic leverage to whichever faction is in charge.

Although the fact that both sides remain focused and committed to defeating ISIS in its final stronghold is a positive development, it is not without risks. Tensions between the SDF and the SAA have been rising steadily over the past months, and there have been numerous incidents where the two sides have skirmished each other. So far, these skirmishes have not led to sustained fighting, but the risk is there. And any such fighting could plunge Syria’s north east into further fighting, even as the war in the rest of the country is winding down.