x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

The Syrian regime had options in Deir Ezzor, but it still chose indiscriminate destruction

Hassan Hassan writes on the changing nature of the conflict in the province

A 2017 file photograph from Deir Ezzor. AFP
A 2017 file photograph from Deir Ezzor. AFP

In Deir Ezzor, the two banks of the Euphrates river draw a curious picture for the future of eastern Syria. The regime is back in rural Deir Ezzor for the first time in at least four years, controlling half of the province west of the river and all of its major urban centres. On the other side, forces backed by the United States are edging closer to controlling the other half.

As the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces slowly drive ISIL out of the remaining handful of towns near the Iraqi borders, a telling trend is playing out: regime-held areas are largely empty of their residents, in sharp contrast to areas controlled by the SDF. What makes this trend even more relevant is that the voting with their feet is being done by locals supportive to and ambivalent about the regime.

Some background is necessary to explain how the situation has developed. Fighting and bombing never stopped in Deir Ezzor throughout the Syrian conflict, but much of the eastern province had been spared the levels of destruction seen elsewhere in the country. Rural areas constitute most of the province and this helped residents remain in their homes. The trend continued in those areas, whether they were under the regime, the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat Al Nusra and later ISIL.

Even though the situation deteriorated over the years, relative calm in rural areas and the ability of locals to rely on agricultural products and oil revenues kept the areas standing for most of the conflict. In 2016, before battles reached Raqqa and Deir Ezzor, most of the province began to look increasingly empty. Entire families would risk their lives to leave ISIL areas through dangerous smuggling routes.

When the battles finally reached Deir Ezzor in September, violence caused unprecedented waves of displacement, especially on the western side of the river. Specifically, a relentless bombing campaign by the regime and Russia in Mayadeen caused panic and a state of confusion, whereby locals from the eastern side of the river would flee into the western side and vice versa.

When the regime took Mayadeen and ISIL’s hold weakened, people began to make clear choices. Large numbers moved to desert areas to live in makeshift camps, to SDF towns or to other parts of Syria under regime control. As the regime seized half of the province and the SDF controlled most of the other half, people from regime-held areas fled, while those in SDF areas began to return.

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The reasons for people fleeing regime areas vary. Some have to do with conscription in the army. Families opposed to the regime or with members who had joined the rebellion fear retribution. Others remain in displacement camps or in SDF areas waiting to see how the situation evolves.

More importantly, many fled because of the random nature of regime violence. I was in contact with supporters of the regime, who had long quietly defended Bashar Al Assad, and who might even be still opposed to all alternatives. One such supporter recently had to flee with his family from an area currently under the regime because of the regime bombing in his town.

Another defender of the regime took a different stance recently, in favour of the SDF, not necessarily because he turned against the regime but because of the Iranian role in the battles in eastern Syria.

The publicity around Iran’s role in those fights, done by Iran and its allied militias to poke at the increased American presence in that region, is clearly playing against the regime in an area that has large numbers of silent government supporters. As someone from that region, I believe many would have welcomed the regime’s return if it was done differently. The violence perpetrated by the regime was clearly indiscriminate, as acknowledged by regime supporters themselves. The rush to retake Deir Ezzor, as part of the race against the US-backed forces, meant that the regime had to rely on Russia and Iran to spearhead the fighting there.

In Deir Ezzor, more than elsewhere, the regime seems to understand it has a support base in the province. This is evidenced in attempts to reach out to tribal elders, through numerous channels, and publicly through the statement by the foreign minister praising the Egaidat tribe, the largest in the province. Despite this, the regime still chose destruction and indiscriminate bombing to plant its flags in Deir Ezzor, clear indications of its weakness to conduct itself differently, unlike the SDF does on the other side of the river.

People may return after the situation stabilises, but the current popular realignment already tells of the regime’s inability to win without causing unnecessary suffering. Many who were suspicious and dismissive of the Kurdish-dominated SDF just before the battles in Deir Ezzor came to see it as a better alternative to the regime, which says more about the regime than about the SDF.

Hassan Hassan is a senior fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy