After two months of intense fighting, Syria's last major ISIS stronghold of Deir Ezzor city has been fully liberated by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA), and this comes just as the terror group is losing its final stronghold across the border in Iraq as the Iraqi army and paramilitary units liberate the city of al-Qaem.
The final fledgling terror resistance ended overnight as the SAA's elite Tiger Forces and the Republican Guard yesterday liberated the city's Jubaliyah neighborhood, the central park area, the school of law and education area and the southern part of the sprawling Hamidiyah neighborhood. The week witnessed rapid army victory as it pushed deep into the last remnants of ISIS presence in the city, with the group losing 40% of the area that it had been controlling in the northern part of the city in a matter of a mere few days.
Backed by Russian airstrikes, the Syrian army's victory in Deir Ezzor has even anti-Assad pundits expressing shock and surprise that government forces could come back against such impossible odds. For much of the past year the city's key military airport was besieged by ISIS while over 5000 civilians along with Syrian army and Hezbollah fighters were trapped inside the base with no food or supplies. According to various reports from correspondents on the ground, it was defended from near daily terror attacks by starving base residents, and supplied from government air drops. Many lost their lives just attempting to access some of the hard to reach airdrops on which the base's survival depended, however, it was the SAA liberation of this key airport in early September that proved to be the final turning point of the breakdown of the ISIS stranglehold on the city.
That the regime has been able to keep its garrison in Deir Ezzor is indeed quite a miracle. Fair is fair. https://t.co/znlJJT5m9H— Hassan Hassan (@hxhassan) November 3, 2017
Yet even starting five years back, when much of the city came under the control of the Islamic State's precursor, al-Nusra Front (al-Qaeda), the plight of the over 100,000 pro-government civilians trapped and brutalized by jihadists in Deir Ezzor had been largely ignored by international media, even as civilian suffering in other parts of Syria was frequently highlighted. The eastern province's largest city spent two years under Nusra control, followed by three years of ISIS control.
Though ISIS lines began crumbling in early September, US presence in the area threatened to complicate the Syrian military's forward momentum in the provinces of Deir Ezzor and Hasakah, as the US-backed SDF (Syrian Kurdish dominated "Syrian Democratic Forces") progressed against ISIS on the eastern side of the Euphrates, which runs through Deir Ezzor city. There was a time when it appeared that US-backed forces might eventually attempt to themselves take the city outright, similar to what occurred last month with the SDF liberation of Raqqa.
And with Syria's largest oil and gas fields and processing plants located in and around Deir Ezzor up for grabs, both advancing sides (SDF from the East, and SAA from the West) accused the other of coordinating with ISIS and merely "pretending" to drive out the terrorists. Late last month the SDF announced it had captured Syria's largest oil field - al-Omar field which lies on the eastern bank of the Euphrates - from ISIS, though the future of this field and others continues to be contested by the Syrian government and Kurdish forces.
At times over the course of the the Deir Ezzor ordeal, Syrian national forces came under direct US attack. The most significant event occurred over a year ago when the US coalition launched a massive air attack on Syrian government troops near the city's military airport at the very moment the Syrian army was fighting ISIS. The US characterized it as a case of mistaken identity while Syria accused the US coalition of directly aiding ISIS by the attack. The end result was about 100 Syrian soldiers dead and over a hundred more wounded while ISIS terrorists were able to advance and entrench their positions.
But concerning last night's final and monumental Syrian army victory, it's worthwhile to recall all that Deir Ezzor has suffered over the years, which prompted even pro-opposition pundit Hassan Hassan to respond, "That the regime has been able to keep its garrison in Deir Ezzor is indeed quite a miracle. Fair is fair."
Liberation of Deir Ezzor by the Syrian Army. Image source: Al-Masdar News
An expert who goes by the name Ehsani and writes for the influential analysis blog, Syria Comment, previously obtained rare insider commentary from a senior Syrian government official concerning the lifting of the Deir Ezzor siege, and its liberation and its significance. Ehsani presented the comments as follows:
What a senior source in Damascus had to say about Deir Ezzor: The city had been under siege for 5 years - two under Nusra and three under ISIS. When Mosul fell, the Iraqi Army had almost 10 times the number of people that Syrian Army had in Deir Ezzor. Few predicted we can hold on. The Syrian Army presence resembled a small island surrounded by the black of ISIS. All we had was a total of 7,000 between police and soldiers. Of the 7,000 present, only 2,000 were truly professional soldiers. Many of these men didn't see their families for nearly 5 years. Real medical care was lacking. Leading officers who died had to be replaced several times. A total of 180,000 civilians were also under siege. The State had to provide the security for both citizens & troops. ISIS did not stop its attacks against us once throughout the 3 years. Every time the Iraqi army attacked ISIS, more of the group would move into Syria and their attacks against our troops would increase. Throughout this ordeal, the Syrian leadership did not even once contemplate or made any plans to abandon the city. Recall that US strike against our most important strategic position caused us to lose 10% of our troops stationed to defend the airport side. Roads to Deir Ezzor are now open from most Syrian cities. Citizens under control of terrorists and insurgents will soon all be freed. Deir Ezzor like all cities will come under one flag - the one with 2 stars under one national identity that is immune from fitna [discord] and strife. "Do I believe that the Syria of the future will surprise the world but this time in how we will rebuild & move on? Yes, of course I do."
Now the Syrian army will set its sites on the increasingly non-existent Islamic State terror group's last place where it has an urban presence in Syria: the town of Abu Kamal - this as ISIS finds itself squeezed into the border area between Deir Ezzor and Abu Kamal. As the Iraqi army is now purging al-Qaem on the Iraqi side - it is likely that the group's leaders and militants will flee to the numerous refugee camps which have emerged in the last years along the Syrian-Iraq border in order to hide amidst the tens of thousands of refugees that remain.