ISW analyst: Regime, SDF on path to ‘confrontation’ in oil-rich eastern desert

The Syrian regime and the US-led coalition against the Islamic State are now “poised for competition and confrontation” with one another in the battle for Deir e-Zor city playing out along the Euphrates River in eastern Syria, says Chris Kozak, a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War.

Both the regime and fighters from the US-backed Kurdish-majority Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are engaged in separate offensives against the Islamic State to capture Deir e-Zor city and its outskirts, located along the Euphrates River. The SDF is consolidating territory on the eastern bank of the river, while the Syrian government is surrounding IS-controlled neighborhoods on the river’s western bank.

Deir e-Zor province, largely controlled by the Islamic State (IS) since 2014, is home to major oil and natural gas fields south of its provincial capital on the eastern bank of the Euphrates River—a crucial and strategic region for the Syrian government. Both sides are vying for the oil fields, control of which would give the regime “hold over the economy of western Syria,” says Kozak. “For the SDF, the oil fields increase the viability of some sort of federal or autonomous region.”

Syrian military personnel, along with thousands of civilians, were trapped for years behind an IS encirclement until a regime offensive earlier this month broke through IS lines and reopened a supply route to one of the city’s encircled districts for the first time in three years, Syria Direct reported at the time.

Q: So the big question here—on the Deir e-Zor front, we’ve seen US- and Russian-backed forces come within less than five kilometers from one another. After Saturday’s alleged Russian airstrike on the eastern bank of the river that injured several SDF fighters, do you see the two sides poised for any sort of direct confrontation on the ground?

The pro-regime coalition and the Syrian Democratic Forces along with the US-led coalition against the Islamic State are poised for a period of competition and confrontation in Deir e-Zor province.

The pro-regime coalition and SDF previously engaged in a similar escalation cycle near Raqqa city that resulted in the downing of a regime warplane by the [US-led] coalition.

The two later reached a stable de-confliction agreement that remains in effect until today. 

I’m very confident that at the top level there are conversations to prevent this from becoming a conflict. But the reality is that how this situation escalates is really going to depend on the actors on the ground, and how they end up interacting with each other, as well as the ability of Russia and the US to keep their partners in check. This is particularly true in Deir e-Zor, where there are many vital interests all at stake converging in one area. That’s going to be difficult.

The real threat here is that the partner forces on the ground—the SAA and the SDF—come close [to confrontation] before the US and Russia can slow them down. 

Q: So right now we’re seeing what is essentially a race between the regime and the SDF for control of the Deir e-Zor area. Can you talk briefly on what is at stake here for the two opposing blocs? 

Deir e-Zor province is full of natural resources. There are large oil and natural gas fields that are primarily along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River and continue down towards the Syrian-Iraqi border. Those [oil fields] are desired by both the SDF and the pro-regime coalition.

For the regime, [controlling the fields gives them] hold over the economy of regime-held western Syria. For the SDF, the oil fields would increase the financial viability of some sort of federal or autonomous region.

Eventually, there’s also the strategic interests in a cross-border route, perhaps, that will go from Iran to Damascus through Iraq and Syria, although I’d put less significance on that as a long-term goal that they are focusing on for the moment. But that’s a more long-term strategy.

Damage from an alleged Russian airstrike on an SDF position in Deir e-Zor on Saturday. Photo Courtesy of the YPG Press Office.

Q: What about IS—what does their role in all this actually look like on the ground? After all, there is still a region of holdout Islamic State control between the US-backed and Russian forces in Deir e-Zor.

That’s the funny thing about this—we’re only just now talking about IS, when they are ostensibly the party that everyone is going after here. IS, as far as I can tell, is consolidating its remaining stretch of the middle Euphrates River Valley—the stretch from Mayadeen to al-Bukamel and down the Iraqi side of the border.

As you know, IS has ceded a lot of ground recently, both to pro-regime forces and the SDF on the outskirts of Deir e-Zor city, and they’re certainly on the back foot overall. But that doesn’t mean they’re done.

What I am concerned about is that IS is very smart at finding ways to play the seams between the opponents.

What we’ve seen IS do before is launch local counter-offensives right along the seams between the opposing forces that turn the opposing forces toward a direct confrontation with each other, rather than focusing on fighting against ISIS.

At this point, I think that is likely what we are going to see, and it will be constant trouble between the natural inclinations of some of these rival forces.  

Q: So stepping back, it seems that the battle for Deir e-Zor differs vastly from Raqqa in that the battle in Raqqa is much more of a one-dimensional fight to remove IS from the city—whereas in Deir e-Zor, the strategy is a far more complex fight over interests that are larger than the city itself.

Exactly, and that complicates the matter. The US has been very focused on trying to keep the Deir e-Zor fight one-dimensional, when in fact this is a very multi-dimensional competition with Russia and Iran at this point.

Even if the US anti-IS coalition doesn’t want to compete, the pro-regime coalition is certainly competing. That dynamic is going to drive a lot of friction, as we are already starting to see in eastern Syria, where it appears that basically everyone, including our partners on the ground, understands what is at stake in eastern Syria except for the US coalition.

Pro-regime forces in Deir e-Zor on Thursday. Photo courtesy of SANA

Q: We spoke earlier this month, when pro-regime forces breached the Islamic State’s three-year siege over regime holdout districts of the city—essentially launching the battle for Deir e-Zor that we see today. At the time, you mentioned that regime forces likely did not have the military strength to sustain any real urban combat inside Islamic State-held Deir e-Zor city proper.

But Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov told state news outlet RT on Thursday that Moscow’s partner forces in Deir e-Zor now control 85 percent of the city. Do you still feel an urban battle is unlikely?

I do still maintain that statement because despite what the Russian Ministry of Defense has said, from our sources, we’ve seen no major shift in the controlled terrain inside the urban part of Deir e-Zor. 

What we have seen is a lot of operations of pro-regime forces to clear formerly IS-held suburbs of Deir e-Zor city.

A lot of these areas, if you use a generous interpretation which I feel the Russians are, are [part] of Deir e-Zor city’s greater urban area. In terms of the actually built-up city proper, we’ve seen no major shifts in terrain inside the city itself.

Q: So for someone living inside the urban center of Deir e-Zor, it doesn’t look that different today than it did at the beginning of September? 

As far as we can tell, no. It looks relatively the same, despite the fact that you are now under much heavier Russian airstrikes, a much heavier Russian air campaign. 

At some point, Deir e-Zor city will need to be cleared, but the pro-regime coalition as it is continuing to do is going to prioritize these operations on the outskirts—crossing the Euphrates River, blocking the SDF—instead of dealing with that urban center.

They’ve used the siege-and-starve campaign to great effect elsewhere, in western Syria.

Justin Clark

Justin studied Arabic at Western Michigan University. He continued his studies at Bethlehem University in the West Bank and the Qasid Institute in Jordan. Justin's work and studies have taken him to Jordan, the West Bank, Egypt and Greece.

Madeline Edwards

Madeline Edwards graduated from the College of Charleston with a bachelor’s degree in International Studies and Political Science in 2016. She was a Critical Language Scholarship (CLS) recipient in Arabic in 2013. Her studies have brought her to Jordan, Palestine and Turkey.