x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

In Syria's east, the revolution's strengths are largely ignored

Syria's political opponents should take advantage of the resources of Deir Ezzor, a province that could be the key to freeing the country's east from regime control.

Haidar Ali Al Fandi, a doctor I knew during my university studies in Damascus, was killed in the provincial capital of Deir Ezzor two weeks ago. According to activists, security forces raided his home and shot him because he had turned the house into a field hospital.

Dr Haidar was one of very few medical practitioners who had remained in the city after a major military assault started in June. The city has since been sealed off, with scores of people killed on a daily basis.

The medical and humanitarian situation is truly alarming. At the weekend, residents issued an urgent appeal to the outside world for help. Many medics had already left after closing their pharmacies and clinics. About half a million residents have been displaced from Deir Ezzor province, mainly to the neighbouring Hasaka and Raqqa provinces - where, residents say, rents have skyrocketed and many people have been forced to return home for financial reasons. Medical supplies and food are running out.

A few days before Dr Haidar was killed, residents had appealed in a video recording to medics from the city to return. Unlike other cities in Syria, the province is surrounded by neighbours unwilling to help. It borders Iraq, a useful ally to Damascus despite its rhetoric. So far, Raqqa province has been immune to the anti-regime uprising, and Hasaka is relatively quiet.

According to activists, the Syrian National Council justified its failure to send relief to the city because of its location. When Homs was under siege last year, activists say, humanitarian organisations managed - to a certain extent - to send aid to the people there. Residents of Deir Ezzor have not seen the same.

Deir Ezzor is separated from other provinces by desert, making it easily cut off from the rest of the country. The province accounts for about 70 per cent of Syria's oil and gas output, and is a main source of agricultural and livestock products. But instead of the province being an asset to the anti-Assad uprising, isolation has become a curse for residents.

Despite the people's plight, and the city's importance - now, and after the regime falls - the situation has not received enough attention. To be sure, most Syrian towns and cities under siege are suffering similarly with little media attention. That is the point. The opposition's political legitimacy, and consequently national stability after the regime's fall, depends on the perception that different cities and regions are being treated equally.

Media, particularly many Arabic outlets that are steered by Syria's political opposition, have consistently neglected Deir Ezzor despite several breakthroughs in the province.

The province was "liberated" for 22 days in July last year. Tens of thousands of demonstrators rallied daily in a square they called "Freedom Square", until the regime launched an assault and reclaimed the area during Ramadan. That symbolic "freedom" was hardly recognised by the media.

The two highest regime officials to defect are from Deir Ezzor: Nawaf Al Fares, the Syrian ambassador to Iraq, defected in July; and Riad Hijab, the former prime minister, fled in August. The first pilot to defect to Jordan was also said to be from the area, although that is unconfirmed. The first regime jet to be downed was in Deir Ezzor.

An unfortunate fact of the Syrian uprising is that different opposition forces focus on different areas depending on their narrow, cynical interests. The Muslim Brotherhood wields influence with many Arabic media outlets, and the news focuses on areas where the group is establishing a presence, particularly in the middle and north of the country. The Brotherhood's influence in Deir Ezzor, as in many other areas, is highly unlikely.

This misguided opposition policy plays into the regime's hands. The struggle must be unified, which would reduce the regime's ability to manage the conflict. Focusing on one area - yesterday Homs, now Aleppo, tomorrow Damascus - helps the Assads win the propaganda war as they win one battle after another on the ground. The focus on single cities raises expectations and then disappoints - the truth is that Assad forces are beset in almost every corner of the country.

Future stability hinges on the current performance of the political opposition. Deir Ezzor's residents are increasingly feeling abandoned by the opposition. After the regime's fall, the area will almost certainly be stable because of the social cohesion and the role of the tribes, but the province has specific political demands. For decades, it has been an impoverished area despite its rich resources.

The Baathist regime deliberately suppressed the province's culture and traditions. The central government has contributed to the province's grievances, and activists seek a different political and administrative outcome when the regime falls. The Baathist policies of neglect and contempt have, at least in the eyes of many residents, been so far mirrored by the opposition.

Every region of the country can be an asset to the uprising in its own way. Aleppo has been an important province to secure supplies through Turkey, and to bring the fight to the regime in the country's second city. Deir Ezzor is also a vital province for the regime because of its resources, and it could be the key to freeing the country's east from regime control. Why cannot the political opposition take advantage of all of its potential assets?

 

hhassan@thenational.ae

On Twitter: @hhassan140