Islamic State Strikes Back in Syria After Losing Ground

BEIRUT (The Washington Post) -

Islamic State is intensifying a brutal siege against President Bashar al-Assad’s last stronghold in eastern Syria in an apparent show of resilience as the group suffers battlefield defeats elsewhere.

The terrorist organization has unleashed waves of suicide bombers and other attacks in the escalated push to seize government-held areas in the city of Deir al-Zour, according to monitoring groups. An estimated 200,000 people in those areas are quickly running out of food and medicine after a year of blockade by the group, with the United Nations expressing concern about possible deaths due to starvation.

The city’s fall would mark an effective end to the Assad government’s control of the vast expanses of eastern Syria, an area that is now mostly divided between Kurdish forces and the Islamic State. It would also deal a symbolic but important blow to Russia’s military campaign in Syria, which has helped Assad’s forces regain momentum against rebels in the western part of the country but has yet to decisively turn the tide of the war.

Moscow says it intends to cripple the Islamic State, but the United States and Syrian opposition figures say Russian airstrikes have mostly targeted other groups opposed to Assad’s rule.

The Islamic State’s escalating attacks on Deir al-Zour are a show of force “about reversing setbacks” in parts of Syria and Iraq where the group has been losing territory to U.S.-backed opponents, said Emile Hokayem, a Middle East analyst at the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies.

Deir al-Zour, once a sleepy farming town known for scenic views of the Euphrates River, is the capital of an oil-producing province that shares the same name – most of which has fallen to Islamic State control.

In recent months, Kurdish forces in Syria have seized vast tracts of land from the terrorist group just north of Raqqa, the capital of its self-declared caliphate. The country’s ethnic Kurds, who have fought intense ground battles against the Islamic State, are exploiting the chaos of war to carve out an autonomous enclave in the northeast.

Last month, Iraqi forces drove Islamic State terrorists out of the city of Ramadi, dealing another blow to the terror group in Iraq.

A U.S.-led coalition has conducted airstrikes to help the anti-Islamic State forces in both countries.

The Islamic State has for a year encircled and gradually taken control of Deir al-Zour, about 280 miles east of the capital, Damascus.

Nelly Lahoud, an expert on political Islam at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said that “news of ISIS seeking to expand its territory serves as a morale boost for its fighters. It’s as if they are resuming their conquest phase, a break from their recent contracting phase.”

The group’s attacks against government defenses in the city have become especially brutal in recent weeks, according to monitoring groups and government media. They have reported a massacre, mass kidnappings and waves of suicide attacks, including against a government air base in the area.

Activists from the city, however, say the government has exaggerated those claims.

But the terrorists appear to have seized a government arms depot in the area that held anti-tank missiles, artillery and other heavy weapons.

Still, analysts say, losing Deir al-Zour could actually benefit Assad, freeing up resources for the fight in western areas of Syria, which are considered more important to his government’s survival. Those areas include the capital and territory that runs along the Lebanese border and western coastline. And that is where U.S. officials and Syrian opposition figures say Russia has concentrated its air raids, backing a government-led offensive since late September against rebels that oppose the Islamic State.

“I don’t expect the regime to put up a big fight against ISIS in Deir al-Zour,” said Lina Khatib, a Syria analyst at the Arab Reform Initiative. But she said losing the city would undermine Russia’s anti-Islamic State narrative to justify its involvement in the civil war, which has led to more than 250,000 deaths, displaced millions and empowered terrorists. “The fall of Deir Ezzor would certainly reinforce the notion that the Russian campaign in Syria is definitely not aimed at ISIS,” Khatib said.

Still, Moscow says it has stepped up support to its besieged allies in Deir al-Zour, air dropping dozens of tons of humanitarian aid to government-held areas while carrying out airstrikes against Islamic State terrorists.

The humanitarian aid is desperately needed, says the United Nations, which has struggled to deliver food and medicine to government-held areas of the city because of the siege.

Water is available once a week for three hours, according Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. A report by the U.N. agency this month cited severe malnutrition and possible deaths by starvation.

Perhaps just as problematic for trapped residents, activists from the city say, is the extortion imposed by government officials. For instance, they charge as much as $5,000 for evacuation by helicopter, a sum that few can afford, said Karam al-Hamad, an activist from the city who lives in Turkey. Officials also have been seizing humanitarian aid and selling it to desperate residents at exorbitant prices, he said.

“The people are trapped, and the regime is benefitting from the siege,” Hamad said.