One of the combat theaters in Syria where both the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) and civilians have been fighting in encirclement for over three years, successfully repelling enemy assaults, is Deir Ezzor.
The city is the seventh largest in Syria by population, according to 2012 data, when some 240 thousand people lived there. The Syrians themselves call it the “pearl of the desert.” It’s a large tourist and cultural center of the country. It’s also the center of an agricultural region with well developed cattle herding, cotton cultivation, and other plant cultures. But it is first and foremost Syria’s oil extraction center. The Deir Ezzor province is home to Syria’s largest oil deposit, the Al-Omar. For ISIS, the city and the province are of particular value since the deposits there contain the highly valuable light sweet crude usable in the production of gasoline and diesel fuel, even using homebrew methods. As of October 2015, ISIS extracted up to 40 thousand barrels of crude a day. The largest Al-Tanak oil fields yielded up to 12 thousand barrels a day, while Al-Omar produced up to 9 thousand barrels of top-quality crude.
In addition, Deir Ezzor is a junction for roads which connect Syria’s cities to neighboring Iraq. Deir Ezzor airport, located south of the city, is a joint-basing airfield as it is home not only to civil aviation but also Syria’s air force.
The Prelude to the Blockade
The situation in Deir Ezzor began to deteriorate when, following Friday prayers on the eve of Ramadan in late July 2011, unknown individuals dressed in military uniforms, opened fire on civilians. Subsequently the city saw protests demanding Bashar Assad’s resignation. In order to restore calm, troops were dispatched to the province. That’s when combat operations of varying intensity began in the city and the province.
By the fall of 2012, FSA and their situational ally Al-Nusra (or Al-Qaeda) controlled 90% of the province. This was not by accident. The long columns of tankers with high-quality Syrian crude would regularly head toward the border with Turkey.
In early 2013, the rebels seized oil fields of the province, and are able to enter neighboring Hasaka province (north-eastern Syria).
By May 2013, the rebels controlled half the city, while the military held the other half, the city’s military facility, and some of the oil industry.
In August 2013, the rebels launched a large-scale offensive which was met by an SAA counter-attack. But by October government forces were ejected from the city.
In November 2013, the rebels seized Syria’s largest oil deposit, Al-Omar. Since then the government has been totally dependent on petroleum product imports. By the end of the year, the rebels had seized control of nearly all the oil fields.
The fighting’s epicenter then moved toward the western reaches of Deir Ezzor, the suburbs which separate it from the airport.
Starting in early 2014, the tensions among various rebel factions (al-Nusra, Jaysh al-Islam, Haraka Ahrar Sham, the remnants of FSA, and other brigades which united into the Mejlis of Eastern Mujahedeen Shura), and those forces that declared themselves the Islamic State (ISIS).
On February 10, 2014, ISIS, in the face of the numerical superiority of al-Qaeda, FSA, and other groups seeking to capture the rich oil deposits, was forced to leave Deir Ezzor and focus its forces on Hasaka and Raqqa.
ISIS’ successful ops in Iraq in June 2014 allowed them to seize large quantities of munitions, modern weapons, and Western equipment. Some of that was immediately sent to Syria, to territories controlled by ISIS. This gave them a clear tactical superiority over both government forces and other rebels.
On July 14, 2014, after the killing of one of the local al-Nusra units, ISIS forced rebels to leave Deir Ezzor. On Sepbember 3, ISIS undertook its first independent attempt to take the airport. The SAA was able to repel the attack with the help of air support.
On September 15, 2014, government forces’ combat engineers blew up the last remaining Siyasiyeh bridge across the Euphrates that was used to resupply IS units. On November 12, the 104th Airborne Brigade took control of the Sakr island within the confines of the city following intense fighting. They discovered a small tunnel network built by local inhabitants forced to do so by the IS. Inside were large quantities of medications and surgical equipment. Durign the December 2014 offensive (which lasted from December 3 through 10), the militants took part of the village of Al Jafra and the rocket artillery battalion positions to the north-east of the city. They were not able to take the Turdah hill south of the airport.
Between January 16 and 21, 2016, IS militants launched an assault on the city from the north, east, and south. A group of militants sent six suiciders who tried to break through the checkpoints in the suburbs, but without success. IS launched several additional in the course of one day. In spite of desperate SAA resistance, IS took Al-Bughayliya and Ayyash suburbs, and the Al-Mariyah farms. Independent sources reported the death of 330 civilians and over 90 soldiers, while 400 military family members were taken captive. The militants lost over 350 killed during the offensive.
During the five years of fighting the two sides’ losses, according to various estimates, have reached 3000 militants (including IS), and 2500 SAA troops. According to the most conservative estimates, about 1000 civilians perished. When assessing losses, one must keep in mind that each of the warring parties exaggerates enemy losses and under-reports their own in order to use these reports of own successes and enemy defeats as propaganda. While military and civilian losses on government-controlled territory are tracked by the Syria Central Statistics Bureau, IS and civilian casualties on IS-controlled territory are tracked by various foundations and organizations hostile to the Assad government. These organizations are mostly financed and organized by the US and its allies. Therefore it’s difficult to speak of an objective data collection operation.
The aims of warring parties and their tactical methods
Some 5000 SAA troops are fighting in encirclement. Militant forces surrounding the city have unknown strength, but are estimated to be at least 7000 strong. SAA troops control about 40% of city’s territory, with 100,000 inhabitants. IS controls the rest, with 50,000 inhabitants.
The 104th Airborne Brigade, part of the SAA’s elite Republican Guard, forms the core of the city’s defense. SAA forces also include units of the 137th and 123rd Mechanized Brigades, local militia units, parts of the 119th and 71st Regiments, 8th Air Force Squadron (10 MiG-21s and some Mi-8/17s, Mi-25s) at the Deir Ezzor airbase. The 104th is supported by the 819th Squadron equipped with Su-24M2 bombers. The defense is led by 104th commander, Major General Issam Zahreddin. The SAA’s main task is to hold the airport and, if possible, break the blockade and destroy militant forces.
The main IS task is to take the airport, then the city. As soon as the airport is captured, the defeat of SAA units, left without food or munition resupply, would be a matter of time. The airfield is critically important both for the population and the defenders. It is the only way by which the garrison can be supplied and reinforced.
Most fighting is taking place around the airport and the al-Tardah hill, which overlooks the airfield and can be used to cover it with fire. Starting in May 2015, when Palmyra was captured by IS, the Deir Ezzor—Palmyra—Homs road was cut and SAA forces at Deir Ezzor have been in encirclement. The nearest base is 160km away near Palmyra.
During the last year, combat operations have followed a certain pattern. The militants launch attacks from al-Jafra farms and al-Mariiyah, from the south and east of the airfield. The SAA, with air and artillery support, repels these attacks. Both sides return to their original positions.
We can examine tactical methods used on the basis of the reports from a single day of fighting. For example, on November 23, 2016, SAA units once again repelled a powerful IS attack on the airport. The battle lasted six hours and ended with a clear SAA victory. The terrorists struck airbase’s southern perimeter from the nearby farms. Moreover, Jafra farms, where there are SAA positions, also came under attack. Positions were initially approached with armored suicide vehicle bombs, followed by militants whose task was to identify SAA firing positions. These positions were then attacked by IS snipers. Massed IS attacks were broken up by artillery, mortars, and large-caliber machine-gun fire.
Government forces prevented the enemy from entering into close combat, instead breaking up his formations at long ranges. Over 30 jihadists perished in this battle. Among them were mercenaries from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Morocco. After the failed IS attack, SAA troops conducted a sweep.
Moreover, the city itself is the site of active mine war. The SAA special purpose unit known as the al-Qasim group, conducted an operation on November 20, 2016, in order to destroy two large tunnels used by IS for supply. Syrian forces made a counter-mine from the direction of the al-Afri district and placed a powerful explosive under the tunnel. A second counter-mine was made in the neighboring Port Said district, where al-Qasim commanders decided to use the same tactic. As soon as the digs were completed, the explosives were detonated, killing dozens of jihadists and significantly damaging the infrastructure. The militants have made efforts to dig trenches and tunnels in the direction of SAA positions, but they have been effectively suppressed.
IS militants, cognizant of the city’s importance and the professionalism of its defenders, actively use suicide bombs, individual and vehicular. There are reports IS use drones to observe SAA positions. On October 29, 2014, SAA unit seized control of an IS drone forcing it to land within the city’s cemetery. On April 15, 2015, an IS drone was forced to land in a Deir Ezzor industrial park. An IS drone was shot down by ground fire on November 15, 2016, its wreckage falling near the old airport.
An event astounding in its cynicism took place on September 16, 2016. US-led coalition aircraft struck Syrian troops near the airport and the al-Tardah mountain. 62 SAA troops were killed instantly, and eventually reached 106, when counting those who died of their wounds by the end of the month, according to Al-Masdar News. The strike was carried out by two A-10 attack aircraft supported by two F-16 fighters. Tellingly, 7 minutes after the airstrike, IS attacked SAA positions on Al-Tardah and seized them. This temporal synchronization clearly indicates coordination between US airpower and IS militants. Nevertheless, by the end of the day the reaction by Russian and Syrian aircraft killed 38 militants, and the SAA ultimately retook the lost positions. Moreover, the SAA also captured the Tal Krum hill. A Syrian MiG was shot down by the militants. On September 18, the militants once again seized the hill, from where they posed an immediate threat to the airbase. IS also seized an artillery battalion base south of the airport. Due to this incident, Syrian government was forced to redeploy over 1,000 Guard troops to Deir Ezzor area.
This has led to a paradoxical situation—the SAA force defending Deir Ezzor is opposed by militants who are about equal in strength. Usually the defenders are outnumbered by the besiegers by a factor of two or three to one. What gave rise to this anomaly?
The advantages and disadvantages of the warring parties
The SAA’s advantages: The SAA in this area is represented by well trained units, supported by air and artillery. Moreover, the troops are on the defense, occupying prepared positions with well established fields of fire. One of the decisive factors is that the intent of the opposition—to take the airport at all costs—is known to the command. Therefore the main forces are concentrated in that area. Palmyra airbase can be used by Russia’s Aerospace Forces as a staging base to render assistance in emergencies.
IS advantages. The exact number of militants in and around the city is unknown. Which is a crucial factor. Since SAA is not conducting aerial reconnaissance, IS can quickly and stealthily mass forces and establish decisive superiority over the defenders at the selected point of attack. SAA can conduct recon using drones (mostly civilian ones).
However, one also has to consider third parties, such as the USAF which is willing to attack SAA positions. It would appear that the Western coalition is stridently opposed to government forces regaining control over Deir Ezzor.
The SAA’s disadvantages: It is unable to establish superiority over the militants and is not pursuing that aim. Moreover, its command understand that it can’t waste its soldiers’ lives. It is not possible to send heavy armor by air, therefore every operational tank and BMP is priceless. There is no aerial recon of enemy dispositions. IS troops are well equipped with anti-air weapons, including HMGs and MANPADS. Fighters are not suitable to recon missions due to their high speed, helicopters are too vulnerable to air defenses. Fuel supplies are low, and are used only for emergency missions. There are munitions shortages, and aircraft frequently sortie armed with locally-made bombs. The army also has to keep in mind there are civilians in the city.
War is, in and of itself, an atrocity. Worst of all, many of the city’s inhabitants are dying of hunger and are suffering from abuse at the hands of radical islamists. Nobody is counting the casualties among the civilians who were killed by IS and their predecessors such as the FSA and al-Qaeda. Deputy General Secretary of the UN Farhana Haka thusly commented the situation in Deir Ezzor: “Approximately 200 thousand people, mainly women and children, are in rapidly deteriorating circumstances in the besieged western part of Deir Ezzor in Syria. They need immediate humanitarian aid, including food and medicine. There are reports of extreme malnutrition and death of starvation.”
The UN also announced they are not able to establish regular aid supply to Deir Ezzor due to the intense battles which periodically erupt in the airport’s vicinity.
Nobody except Syria’s government and Russian airpower commanders is concerned with the starving in the city. Russian Military Transport Aviation aircraft alone delivered about 360 tons of food, medicine, clothes, and tents between January and August 2016. Syria’s transport aircraft also play an important role in maintaining supply. In their absence, the city would have been lost a long time ago, and it’s difficult to imagine what the militants would have done to its population. Overland communications have been cut a long time ago.
We’ll try to put ourselves in place of Syria’s government, which must address the task of supplying the besieged city.
This calculation is based on the specifics of Arab cuisine and the minimum daily nutrition requirements for adults. There are also children in the city, whose nutritional needs vary between 800 calories/day for newborns to 2800 calories/day for 15-18 year-olds. Their needs have not been accounted for in this estimate.
Therefore the weight which has to be delivered on a daily basis amounts to 100,000 * 1kg, or 100 tons per day.
Military personnel as a rule have higher nutrition requirements of 3000 calories/day. If they use individual field rations delivered by Russia (each weighing 2kg), then 5,000 * 2kg = 10 tons per day. If they eat the same products that are consumed by civilians:
5000 individuals * 1,5kg = 7,5 tons per day.
Therefore the total food demand amounts to 107.5 tons per day.
In addition to food, the city needs medicine, fuel, hygiene supplies, mail, and money, and of course munitions.
The main Syrian airbases capable of operating all types of transport aircraft supplying Deir Ezzor include Damascus and Tiyas (Homs province). Syria’s transport aviation includes Il-76M aircraft (three total), An-26 (6), and Mi-8 (about 50).
We’ll assume that Il-76M will fly from Damascus, with its huge warehouses, while An-26 and Mi-8 will operate from Tiyas.
Therefore in order to satisfy the city’s food needs, one requires:
- Two Il-76M flights, each with 40 tons, plus two An-26 flights, each with 5.5 tons, and five Mi-8 flights, each with 4 tons, for a total of 111 tons.
- The Il-76Ms will expend 18 tons of fuel, An-26—2.6 tons, Mi-8—8 tons, for a total of 28.6 tons of fuel.
According to IATA, aviation fuel in the Middle East and Africa as of November 18, 2016, costs $432.ton. Therefore 28.6 tons require the expenditure of $12,355 tons per day. In actuality, the cost of fuel is higher.
These calculations do not include the cost of aircraft maintenance, airbase services, salaries. Moreover, one has to consider the time needed to load and unload the aircraft. In ideal conditions, even if an Il-76 lands at Deir Ezzor, its unloading would take half a day. Until it’s completed, there is no sense in sending another aircraft. Moreover Syrian aircraft are heavily used up, so their transports cannot fly every day. Therefore the air supply is ensured by Mi-8 helicopters.
Considering the above calculations and the intensity of fighting near Aleppo, there are reasons to believe that there exists an unwritten agreement between besieged population, population under IS rule, and IS militants, which partly relieved the government of the responsibility to feed the population in return for a monetary payment. There should be no problem with that. As noted above, Deir Ezzor is a major agricultural center. Syria’s government turns to Russian air force for help only in extreme circumstances.
Evidence supporting this supposition includes the fact that, between January and February 2016, Russian transport aircraft airdropped 250 tons of food and medicine. Then there was a break in large-scale drops, and then, starting with July 8, 2016, airdrops resumed with an 18-ton drop and were followed by 15 tons on August 3, 18 tons on August 11, 21 tons on August 19, 20 tons on August 25, and 17 tons on August 26. There are no reports concerning aidrops between September through October. It is possible to sustain the military force with food, fuel, and munitions using Mi-8s.
Possible Future Scenarios
One should note that the province’s oil fields were nearly exhausted even before the Arab Spring. IS leadership cannot count on oil as its main source of income because world market prices have dropped. In addition, Russian airstrikes and US attacks on oil infrastructure have inflicted irreparable damage. Drill rigs are destroyed, and the attacks on truck columns combined with combat operations in the area meant that people employed in crude extraction and transport no longer wish to risk their lives. In these conditions, IS is not prepared to refurbish its oil extraction infrastructure or to find new deposits. However, oil extraction and export continue, though at a reduced level. Unless external forces intervene, IS will try to hold on to the city for as long as it derives any benefit from selling oil. It is also important to remember that IS wants to inflict crippling losses specifically on the 104th Brigade.
That unit is considered to be the most experienced and battleworthy in all of SAA, and it is currently tying down significant IS forces in the region. The mere presence of Issam Zahreddin’s brigade is an important moral factor for SAA troops. His popularity is due to his personal leadership in combat and constant presence on the front lines. The capture of the airport will allow IS forces in the region to be resupplied by their sponsors in the Persian Gulf. The prolonged fighting for Mosul and the open road to the west of the city give reasons to believe that after a short make-believe battle for the city, up to 8 thousand IS fighters may leave the city and depart for the Iraq-Syria border. Then the terrorists can split into two groups and go toward Deir Ezzor (one through the village of Markyada, another through the village of Sur) and capture it. After the fall of Deir Ezzor, Palmyra would be threatened next.
Concerning the SAA, in the short-term perspective it cannot cut the blockade. Its main operations are around Aleppo. All reserve forces will be sent there. Therefore Deir Ezzor defenders can only count on aerial resupply.
If IS is able to break resistance, it will slaughter the population. It will give the “international community” in the form of the US-led coalition an additional reason to get involved. The US will be able to occupy eastern Syria using the opposition it trained under the pretext of fighting IS. For that purpose, there exists a base 60km north-west of Riyadh in order to train terrorists of Syrian nationality who arrived through Jordan. The unit is called the New Syrian Army. NSA commander Muhhamadat-Tallya is a defector from SAA. That’s who will play a key role in the event of Deir Ezzor’s capture.
In the event of a de-facto partition of Syria which is often mentioned in Western media, US and its allies will get a strategically important region. It is through Deir Ezzor that the proposed gas pipeline from Qatar is supposed to run. Its approximate route takes it from Iraq through al-Kemal toward Deir Ezzor, then toward Raqqa and then to the Turkish border.
These US and allied operations show that Washington and its Persian Gulf allies and Istanbul have never been interested in combating international terrorism. Their interest is only money and power, and they are indifferent to human suffering and casualties.