Over the course of the weekend, the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) pushing eastwards from the Homs Countryside made significant gains against ISIS in the Deir ez-Zour Province. These gains culminated with the SAA reaching the provincial capital, Deir ez-Zour City, where a pro-government garrison and about a 100,000 civilians have been under ISIS siege since 2014. Upon reaching the 137th Brigade Base located in the western axis of the besieged part of the city, the Syrian Government announced on Tuesday morning that the siege over the city has been broken.
Reputedly one of the most brutal fronts in the Syrian War, yet simultaneously least recognised in mainstream media, the plight of Deir ez-Zour under ISIS siege has earned the city monikers such as “the forgotten front” and “the Syrian Stalingrad”. Indeed, the humanitarian conditions in the city have been nothing short of dire. Cut off from supply routes, many residents have become reliant on airdrops by the Syrian Government and the United Nations to survive. Diseases such as Polio have made a comeback amidst medical shortages and lack of access. The government-held districts have been regularly subject to ISIS shelling, resulting in immense civilian casualties.
These factors were not helped by the complicated political situation surrounding the city. As the main population centre in eastern Syria, Deir ez-Zour has been in the sight of not just the Syrian Government, but also the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Coalition-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) groups, Shuhada Qaryatayn and Maghawir al-Thawra. However, the SDF’s attention remains focused in Raqqa while the deployment of the FSA groups to Deir ez-Zour has been repeatedly delayed amidst reports of disagreements with the Coalition. This, in conjunction with the fact that the rest of the country has remained relatively calm as a result of the de-escalation agreements, has given the SAA the opening to push towards the besieged city.
Over the past two months, the government forces made incremental gains in the Homs countryside, culminating in the capture of Sukhnah from ISIS. From there, the SAA pushed eastwards, capturing Jabal Beshri before making the final push to relieve the siege over the city.
At present, fighting around the city continues. ISIS militants have made numerous counterattacks to re-establish the siege over the city while the SAA is conducting further offensives to secure a more direct access into the city. The Governor of Deir ez-Zour, Ibrahim Samra, stated that the government forces would arrive in the city centre over the next 24 to 48 hours, upon which operations to recapture the ISIS-held districts of the city can begin.
Once Deir ez-Zour City is fully secured, it is expected that the city of Mayadin will be the next focal point. Located along the Euphrates River in eastern Deir ez-Zour Province, Mayadin is ISIS’ last major population centre in Syria. Many militants who fled Raqqa have reportedly resettled in Mayadin, making the city an important strategic and political objective.