With ISIS’s capital Raqqa encircled and the street-to-street battle to capture the city ongoing, the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are already looking further south. As the AFP reports:
US-backed Arab and Kurdish fighters said on Friday they would launch an offensive “very soon” to oust the Islamic State group from Syria’s oil-rich Deir Ezzor province.
The strategic territory is also seen as a prize by advancing Syrian troops, but an agreement between regime ally Russia and the US-led coalition is expected to keep the rival assaults from clashing.
The Deir Ezzor Military Council (DEMC), a coalition of Arab tribes and fighters that belongs to the broader US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, announced the upcoming offensive on Friday in northeast Syria.
“Our forces are preparing for the great battle of Deir Ezzor and unifying the tribes,” said DEMC head Ahmad Abu Khawlah in Shadai, some 60 kilometres (35 miles) south of Hasakeh.
Meanwhile, Syrian regime forces are rapidly advancing on Deir ez-Zour from the southwest:
Syrian Arab Army reached Rujm al Hajanah and Jabal Dabbah
— Syrian Civil War Map (@CivilWarMap) August 22, 2017
With the Iraqi army working to recapture Tal Afar on the other side of the border, ISIS is running out of strongholds. While the thousands of ISIS fighters in these cities will hold out until the end, the end of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria as something resembling a state holding actual territory appears to be rapidly approaching
ISIS nonetheless appears to be preparing for that eventuality. The oil fields east of Deir ez-Zour still earn the group as much as $1 million each day, money that ISIS is now desperately trying to transfer out of the country. Whether that money will be used to fund attacks in Europe or to renew the insurgency in Iraq and Syria is unclear, but ISIS clearly has the means to continue their campaign of violence indefinitely. As their spate of car ramming attacks has shown, ISIS’ fanatics can produce mass slaughter for the cost of a van rental.
While that shift of money and focus away from Iraq and Syria will cause one set of problems, the removal of ISIS from this territory will cause problems of its own as the regime’s lines meet the SDF. The informal deconfliction line negotiated between Russia and the United States is the Euphrates river itself. In theory, neither sides’ proxies will cross the line under threat of airstrikes. In practice, will the U.S. really bomb Syrian government troops retaking parts of their own country? In particular, the oil fields on the northern side of the Euphrates will look awfully attractive to both sides. Before the war, oil accounted for 23% of the Syrian government’s revenue, with the fields currently controlled by ISIS accounting for the majority of Syria’s pre-war oil production.
The Syrian Civil War is in many ways winding down. The eventual relief of the Syrian army outpost in Deir ez-Zour that has been under ISIS siege for the past three years will be a major propaganda victory for the regime. What’s left of the opposition is quietly being encouraged to accept the reality that Bashar al-Assad isn’t going anywhere. But as we’ve written before, the aftermath of the conflict has the potential to produce a regional conflagration. With each side racing to the Euphrates, and potentially beyond, let’s hope cooler heads prevail.