Defeating Islamic State: What you need to know as SDF forces approach Deir ez-Zour

by Wladimir van Wilgenburg   Getty Images  


 The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and the Deir ez-Zor military council announced on Saturday that Operation Jazeera Storm to defeat ISIS in the Khabur River Valley was underway.

“We in the name of Military Deir ez-Zor Council bring the good news of starting the campaign of Operation Jazeera Storm that aims at liberating what remained from the Syrian Cizîre lands and east of Euphrates from the terrorists’" the Deir ez-Zor Military Council said in a press conference today.

The US-led coalition welcomed the announcement by the SDF.

Lt. Gen Paul E. Funk II, Commanding General of the Coalition Forces in Iraq and Syria said that the fight for the Khabur River valley is a strategic axis of advance towards the Middle Euphrates River Valley, one of the last holdouts of ISIS.

"The very existence of ISIS poses a real threat to the civilized world and our way of life," stated Funk. "Our collective effort will defeat them."

The coalition forces say they will assist the SDF during the Khabur River valley offensive as part of their 'advise and assist' mission, providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice.

The coalition estimates that the number of ISIS fighters in Deir ez-Zor city and it’s surroundings is about 2,500 fighters, while in the Middle Euphrates River Valley, from Mayadin to Abu Kamal, there are 6,000 to 8,000 ISIS fighters.

Indigenous support

Local journalists say that, over the last few days, US armored vehicles and SDF units were advancing towards Hasakah in anticipation over the battle.
“We have a partner force that is, you know, ready to -- to move into the Deir ez-Zor province and down the Middle Euphrates River Valley.  And so we'll just have to see when that is going to happen, but we'll continue the strikes,” Colonel Ryan Dillon, Combined Joint Task Force-Operation Inherent Resolve Spokesman told reporters last Thursday.
“The SDF, our battle-tested and proven partner have partnered with indigenous Deir ez-Zor tribes and other tribes from the Middle Euphrates River Valley.” Said Dillon,  “and they are still prepared to seize those towns and province -- the province of Deir ez-Zor from ISIS,” he added.
Hayis al Muklif, one leaders of the Arab Shammari Sanadid brigade, who is currently in Ain al Issa confirmed to the Region that, they will also join the Deir ez-Zor battle, since the Shammar tribe also reside in the Deir ez-Zor region

“We will go to Deir ez-Zor. We will go anywhere where Daash is, until Daash is finished,” he told the Region. “We will destroy them,” he added.

Will the SDF run into conflict with the Syrian Arab Army?

Both the Syrian Arab Army and the SDF are approaching Deir ez-Zour province to defeat IS in one of its last strongholds.

The Russian government is backing the Syrian government and it’s militias which recently broke the ISIS siege on a Syrian army brigade. The brigade was stranded in the city of Deir ez-Zor for the last three years.

The US coalition, consisting of the SDF and its regional partners, are also approaching areas under IS control in Deir Ez-Zor. Efforts are currently underway to ensure that they don’t run into conflict along the way.
It seems that the Russians and Americans have reached an agreement; the Syrian government will focus on the city of Deir ez-Zor, while the SDF will fight in what coalition officials called the MERV region, the Middle Euphrates River Valley. This is how coalition forces are trying to make sure no clashes will happen between the SDF and the militias of the Syrian regime.

Clashes between the two forces have happened in the past. During the Raqqa operation, the two exchanged fire in South Raqqa. But learning from past mistakes, the US-led coalition has agreed to deconflict.

“We do monitor and watch and see, you know, where they are and where they're going.  And at the same time, as they move closer into the Middle Euphrates River Valley, like into Deir ez-Zor, and -- we deconflict with the -- the Russians,” the coalition spokesperson said.

Colonel Dillon also added that both the US coalition and Russian backed forces would pay close attention to the deconfliction line that run south of Tabqa and parallel to the Euphrates River.

“We will continue to deconflict and, as necessary and as required, we'll continue to draw a -- that line, if you will, further on down the Middle Euphrates River Valley, if necessary,” he concluded.

The coalition says that throughout the operation, it will work along two corridors, while civilians will be evacuated to SDF-controlled safe areas.

The importance of the battle

For most residents and internally displaced peoples, the sooner the battle for Deir ez Zor is over, the closer they are to a sense of normalcy.  Civilians from Deir ez Zor, who have mostly escaped from the new conscription system imposed by ISIS, say they would prefer the SDF over the regime and Russia, which have killed hundreds of civilians in the last few years.

“If the regime returns to Deir ez Zour, we will not return to it. But if the Syrian Democratic Forces enter it, we will return to it,” Abdul Rahman (21) said. Abdul Rahman fled from Deir ez Zor to a SDF-held camp in Ain al Issa quite recently, a few hours from Raqqa.

Speaking to the Region in the Kurdish city of Slemani in Iraqi Kurdistan, Ilham Ahmed, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) said its important to also defeat ISIS in the Deir ez-Zor region.

“It’s important to defeat ISIS,” Ilham Ahmed, the co-president of the Syrian Democratic Council (SDC) told the Region about the possible battle in Deir ez-Zor. “If Daash [ISIS] stays in Syria, it’s impossible to bring peace and rebuild all of Syria,” she said.

Ciwan Ibrahim, the well-known head of the Kurdish police force known as Asayis in northern Syria told the Saudi news website Okaz, the battle for Deir ez-Zor is more important than Raqqa.

“The real battle is in Deir ez-Zor, which is an oil-rich area with natural resources, and the gate of Syria to Iraq, and the link between Arabs and Kurds in the Syrian land,” he said.

“This region is the most important area now, and that’s why the United States recognizes it, and acts on it,” he concluded.

Nicholas Heras, Middle East Security Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington spoke to the Region about why any attempts to take back Deir ez-Zor had to include the SDF.

“The Coalition is prepared to wage the counter-ISIS campaign into the heart of Deir ez-Zor governorate. Coalition planners have rightly expressed skepticism that Assad's forces and his allies have the capability to defeat ISIS there in a timely manner” Heras told The Region.

“The Coalition has great faith in the ability of the SDF to continue to be the vehicle to mobilize fighters from Deir ez-Zor to be a force to liberate their homeland from ISIS,” he added.

“When it comes to the Deir ez-Zor campaign, the Coalition is "all in" with the SDF,” he concluded.