The Syrian army is continuing its advance on multiple fronts towards Deir ez-Zor, which in recent months has formed the prime target for Damascus.
On Tuesday, the Syrian army, backed by the tribal Sons of Raqqa militia, maintained their push west of Deir ez-Zor – along the Raqqa-Deir ez-Zor highway – capturing the villages of Numeisa, al-Jaber, and al-Khamisiya. These villages lies west of Maadan, the next IS-held village on the road.
On the southwestern axis, the Syrian army is pushing from Sukhnah, approximately 130km from Deir ez-Zor, after capturing the town on Sunday. Located in the eastern Homs countryside, the capture of Sukhnah not only ends a week-long siege of the town, but also spells the end of ISIS’ last major population centre in Homs Province.
The capture of the town also gives the Syrian army a relatively free reach towards Deir ez-Zor. Unlike the countryside west of Sukhnah, which is heavily mountainous, the countryside east towards Deir ez-Zor is mostly flat.
However, the Syrian army’s battle for Deir ez-Zor is now in competition with a collection of Free Syrian Army groups. Based in al-Shaddadi, in the southern part of Hasakah Province, a group of rebel groups from Deir ez-Zor have announced the formation of a united military group entitled The Deir ez-Zor Liberation Brigade.
Among the main aims of this group, which will be led by Yassir Ezzedeen al-Turki, include liberating Deir ez-Zor, supporting civil groups from the city to administer affairs (post-ISIS), and rejecting the presence of any group hostile to the aspirations of the revolution.
The heightened action in and around Deir ez-Zor is increasingly making the city a focal point for numerous actors in Syria. The city has been partially held by ISIS since April 2014, when militants launched wide scale attacks against other rebel groups to assert their control. The other part of the city is held by regime forces, who have been besieged since this assault over three years ago.
In response to increased activity around Deir ez-Zor, ISIS militants have begun forcibly conscripting civilian males into their ranks, an unprecedented decision by the group, to bolster their forces, and defend what is likely to be their last major stronghold in Iraq and Syria.