For much of the past three years, the city of Deir ez-Zour has withstood a brutal ISIS siege. The militants regularly attacked the government-held districts and shelled them, resulting in immense civilian casualties across the embattled city. With aid deliverable only via air, humanitarian conditions in the city were, by all accounts, deteriorating rapidly.
Finding its position relatively secure in the rest of the country, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), supported by numerous militias and tribal fighters belonging to the Shaitat Tribe, began an operation over the past weeks with the intent of breaking the siege over the city.
The government forces made significant gains in the Homs countryside, capturing the town of Sukhnah and then pushing into the Deir ez-Zour Province. Over the course of the following days, news emerged that the siege was broken already. The SAA reportedly reached the 137th Brigade base located in the western outskirts of the city, then managed to clear the long-contested provincial graveyard and the nearby Tharda Mountain, subsequently relieving the siege over the Deir ez-Zour Military Airbase.
Following the breaking of the siege, a large aid convoy, carrying food, medication and other vital supplies was sent to the city. Recovery, however, is going to be an uphill struggle. Although local medical professionals remain optimistic and have noted improvements already, many civilians continue to suffer from the impacts of the siege, with hospitals remaining understaffed and under-supplied.
Meanwhile, long-term healthcare challenges such as Polio, which reemerged during the siege, will require extensive and specialised resources to deal with. Nevertheless, reporters in Deir ez-Zour have noted that life in the city has shown a marked improvement since the siege was relieved.
Risks, however, remain. ISIS militants are still capable of launching raids along the highway into Deir ez-Zour, and numerous districts of the city remain under militant control. Since the siege was relieved, much of the fighting has moved to the surrounding countryside, with the SAA making moves to secure the outlying towns in the city’s northwest and southeast.
Some SAA forces have also reportedly crossed into the Saqr Island and to the northern banks of the Euphrates. Such a move brings the government forces considerably closer to the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) who have been conducting their own operations against ISIS in the northern Deir ez-Zour countryside.
Assuming that the SAA and the SDF agree to a line of delineation, the subsequent battles against ISIS will likely move towards the south of the province where the militants continue to hold large swathes of land, including the city of Mayadin that is now the group’s de-facto capital.
This region also offers a gateway into Iraq’s Anbar Province. With the Iraqi Security Forces now conducting anti-ISIS operations in Anbar, eastern Deir ez-Zour countryside likely represents the last safe place for the militants.