Empowering Sustainable Partners in the Fight and Aftermath in Syria’s Deir Ezzor

After the liberation of Raqqa, Syria, the United States will face a different kind of challenge in defeating ISIS in the province of Deir Ezzor. As the U.S.-backed forces press down the Euphrates River Valley to secure oil fields and territory, they are competing with the Syrian regime and its supporters, Iran and Russia. To remain competitive in this area, the U.S. and anti-ISIS Coalition will have to make key choices as to which local partners it leverages, with implications for post-conflict stabilization.

The Syrian regime and its Iranian allies, with Russian support, are already in the city of Deir Ezzor. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) are not close enough to influence the Syrian regime’s current thrust and, moreover, are fully occupied in Raqqa. Deir Ezzor’s border with Iraq is where ISIS members hope to retreat from Syria, while at the same time the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), backed by Iran, are poised to fortify links into Syria. A full “land bridge” is unlikely to be established without provoking Israeli intervention, but linkages across the border will strengthen the capabilities of Iranian-backed groups in both Syria and Iraq. As the United States reviews its plans to put pressure on Iranian-backed militias throughout the region as a part of the administration’s Iran strategy, eastern Syria will be among the key areas of focus.

Deir Ezzor is rich in oil and gas resources, which the Bashar al-Assad regime needs badly to sustain itself post-ISIS. If Iran obtains control of these resources via its local proxies, it will increase its leverage in the end game in Syria, including through the Astana peace process that currently does not require the departure of foreign fighters from Syria. It is possible that Lebanese Hezbollah is betting on using these resources to fund ongoing operations in Syria, creating an alternative or supplementary economic basis to its home in Lebanon, while creating greater strategic depth vis-à-vis Israel.

Above all, Deir Ezzor is the regional center of Syrian Sunni tribes, which had a taste of autonomy at the beginning of the revolution (circa 2011). Our assessment through extensive regional contacts is that the tribes hope to regain some of their independence after ISIS is defeated and perhaps in a new Syria to follow.

Even though the Syrian regime has recently broken the siege around Deir Ezzor, it’s too early to say that the city has been “liberated.” As witnessed in the Coalition effort to push ISIS out of Mosul, Assad will need a lot of manpower and logistical support first to defeat ISIS fully and then to hold the city.

Assad’s calculation from observing the Coalition is that it’s still busy in Raqqa and will be for the foreseeable future. We assess the regime needs two to three months if it continues along its current trajectory, particularly if Assad has interest in fully reoccupying the city itself.

The brewing dilemma for the United States is twofold. First, the Assad regime may use Deir Ezzor as a springboard to advance along the Euphrates river to the Iraqi border to establish an interior line of communication and supply with Iranian-backed Iraqi PMF. Second, and at the same time, if it waits for the Coalition to do its job in the rest of the province, it is unlikely that the Coalition has the political will or resourcing to hold and stabilize the area over the medium term. The area could then revert to Assad’s control without Assad and his backers having to expend personnel and resources to push ISIS out. If these events occur in tandem, then the United States will face several challenges in achieving its stated aims of defeating ISIS and stabilizing the area.

We see two primary options to address this growing dilemma. First, the SDF could continue its march post-Raqqa into the Euphrates River Valley in partnership with U.S. forces; they have already begun making this push. Second, U.S. forces could partner with local Sunni forces, either independently or in coalition—but not under command—with the SDF. Although quite militarily capable, the predominately Kurdish SDF may well alienate local Sunni tribes that have stronger influence over local governance and security and different relationship dynamics than Arab Sunnis farther north. We believe that working with the local tribes will provide a more sustainable option to defeat ISIS and preserve U.S. interests in Syria.

In parallel, to counter the ISIS propaganda message of victimization with local Sunni Arabs, U.S. forces should coordinate among local tribes and militias to finish the mission expediently. In concert, it is also necessary for U.S. leadership to give guarantees that, the day after, local community and tribal leaders will be in control, not external forces. Economic development incentives should be offered to those tribal leaders who join the effort. This cooperation with local tribes resembles the Sahwa (Awakening) movement in Iraq’s western provinces in 2007 to 2008. However, learning from the failings of the Sahwa, if the Coalition adopts such an approach in Syria, it must realistically set expectations with local tribes on the prospects for their political and economic future and, critically, also deliver on the promise of sustainable and realistic incentives.

To provide a broader framework in which to nest this option and to garner the local interest and support necessary, a U.S. guarantee in the form of a regional de-escalation zone, in coordination with Russia, should be explored. This option will limit Iranian-backed influence in the area, while facilitating de-escalation and de-confliction between U.S. and Russian forces.

Assad may have retaken substantial and strategic territory, but the war is far from over, and questions loom about how to best position a decentralized approach to Syria’s contested areas in a peaceful and sustainable fashion. Leveraging local tribes in Deir Ezzor, and matching that with a realistic economic and political commitment to ensure they have ownership of their community’s future, is the best approach for the U.S.-led Coalition to achieve its objective in a critical province of Syria.

Melissa G. Dalton is a senior fellow and deputy director of the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Bassam Barabandi is a political adviser to the Syrian High Negotiations Committee and cofounder of People Demand Change, a U.S.-based organization.

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Bassam Barabandi

Political Adviser, Syrian High Negotiations Committee; Cofounder, People Demand Change

Melissa Dalton