Tuesday, June 13, 2017

As ISIS's de facto capital of Raqqa comes under siege, the last stand for ISIS will likely be in Deir ez Zor

An ISIS photo of Raqqa. Via Washington Times

As ISIS's de facto capital in Syria, Raqqa, comes under seige, the final battle against ISIS will likely happen in Deir ez Zor. Washington Times. As US backed Kurdish and rebel forces have advanced to the gates of Raqqa, most of the ISIS leadership have fled to the contested city of Deir ez Zor and other cities and towns in the Euphrates river valley. The exodus began last may as it became clear that Raqqa would soon be under threat of being captured. US attempts to speed up the offensive to contain and destroy ISIS leadership failed due to tensions between the US and Turkey about arming Kurdish fighters. With Raqqa no longer the main ISIS base, it is now a race between the Syrian government and US allies to capture Deir ez Zor. 

My Comment:
A good article from the Washington Times detailing the current situation in Syria. They also talked about the high tensions between the United States and Iran in Syria. While it appears that both Russia and Syria are abiding by our deconflictation zone, it's very clear that the Iranians do not care at all. The Iranian backed militias are massing near Tanf, which was supposed to be where US backed forces would launch their attacks on Dier ez Zor.

That attack seems less and less likely every day now. Iranian forces are swarming the area and more will likely join after Mosul falls in Iraq. Though the idea of these former rebels taking up arms and defeating ISIS in Deir ez Zor was always a bit of a pipe dream, I seriously doubt that they will be able to advance towards Raqqa. Indeed, it almost looks like the Kurds are in better position to do so. The worry now is less about if they can advance, but if they can survive at all.  

The question of what to do with the rebels in al-Tanf is a serious one. It's pretty clear that the Iranians want them destroyed and that the Russians and Syrians can't control those militias. Our special forces deployed there are at risk from these militias and we have to wonder if it might not be a good idea to just evacuate everyone and admit that we aren't going to be able to use al-Tanf as a long term base. 

I also find the plans for attacking Dier ez Zor as rather pointless anyways. The Syrian government has had control of the airfield and parts of the city for quite some time and have never entirely lost their hold on the area. They have survived the siege their for years and it would make sense for the Syrian government to make the relief of those forces trapped their a number one priority. It makes much more sense for them to be the ones to lead the offensive. 

Unfortunately for the Syrians, they also have major problems. Their rear flank is still threatened by al-Nusra and the few surviving elements of the Free Syrian Army. Most of Idlib province is still under their control and there are a few rebels left in the Damascus area. Even if those pockets of resistance were dealt with, they still have quite a bit of territory to capture between Palmyra and Deir ez Zor. 

With zero hopes of a quick victory in Deir ez Zor for both the US backed southern rebels and the Syrian regime, is there any other force that can take the city? I think there are two other options. The first is the Kurds. Though the Kurds are fairly far away from Dier ez Zor as well, they have been advancing south quite a bit. I personally thought they never would have ventured as far south as Raqqa, but they have, so perhaps they will advance as far south as Deir ez Zor. Using them would further enrage the Turks but at this point that's more of a benefit than a downside. 

The problem with using the Kurds is that the battle plan rests on them capturing Raqqa fairly quickly. Though I have been surprised at how fast the Kurds have advanced to the gates of Raqqa, it seems foolish to claim, as many news outlets have been, that the battle will be over soon. They said the same thing about the battle of Mosul when it began... almost 9 months ago. It's true that Mosul is much bigger than Raqqa and that many fighters have abandoned Raqqa, but I doubt it will be a week long operation like some media outlets are claiming. 

The other force I could see taking Deir ez Zor are those very same Iranian backed militias that are blocking the US backed rebels. They will soon have the backing of hundreds or thousands of fresh troops from Iraq as Mosul falls. Though there are still wide swaths of territory left in Iraq besides Mosul, the main battles against ISIS will not be there. There is little reason for those militias to stay in Iraq after Mosul and I bet that they will throw themselves into the battle against ISIS in Syria. 

Of all the options possible in the final battle against ISIS, the Shiite militias are probably the worst choice. If they are the ones to liberate Deir ez Zor, expect a bloodbath. While it is somewhat understandable that the Iranian backed militias would want revenge after ISIS's genocidal campaign against Shia Muslims, there are, presumably, some innocent Sunnis left in areas controlled by ISIS. If the Shiite Militias are the ones to recapture those areas, don't bet on there being any left afterwards. 

The bigger question is what happens after ISIS loses its last major outposts in Syria and Iraq. Much of the leadership is likely to die, but I am guessing there will be thousands of fighters that will flee and escape to the wider world. Many of the foreign fighters will try to return to their home countries and cause chaos. The remaining Syrian and Iraqi members will likely go under ground and operate as a more traditional terrorist organization, awaiting the opportunity to take and hold territory again. 

They will have plenty of places outside of Syria and Iraq to go to. ISIS has several backup enclaves where they can flee. In Egypt, they control parts of the Sinai peninsula. They have a small enclave in Yemen. Though they have been greatly reduced in Libya and had their main base of power there destroyed, but they still have cells operating in the country. Afghanistan as well has a major ISIS enclave, despite US airstrikes against them. Most concerning, they have stepped up their presence in The Philippines, where the battle of Marawi City continues to rage. All of these places will likely accept fleeing fighters and perhaps even their leadership. 

Even with the destruction and liberation of ISIS's main holdings, they will not go quietly into the night. They will continue to fight, even as their leadership dies and their capabilities wane. They are a major threat and we can't just expect them to go away... 

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