By Ty Joplin
The Race for Syria’s Economy
Crowds filled the streets of Deir Ezzour, jubilant that the three-year siege of their city by ISIS was finally coming to an end. Car horns blasted, shops re-opened, and men were seen relaxing and smoking cigarettes--a practice banned under ISIS rule. Though Assad’s regime stands accused of murdering countless thousands more civilians than any other side in the conflict, their arrival in the city was met with celebrations.
(A child holds an aid package by the Syrian Arab Red Crescent in Deir Ezzour, AFP)
The Syrian Arab Army’s capture of Deir Ezzour and crossing of the Euphrates river has marked a new stage in the Syrian War.
The Syrian Arab Army (AAA), backed by Russia and Iran, are now in a race against the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), backed by the U.S., to capture Deir Ezzour’s vast oil reserves and the Abu Kamal border crossing with Iraq.
While the SAA worked to oust pockets of ISIS resistance northwest of Deir Ezzour over the weekend, the SDF claimed it captured the Conoco Gas Plant, a major strategic victory. Since then, Russia has targeted SDF positions in several airstrikes.
ISIS' Last Stronghold
Deir Ezzour is ISIS’ last real holdout in Syria, and its quick collapse was sparked by an aggressive offensive by the Syrian Regime backed by Russian airpower. The SDF then seized the opportunity to rush southwards towards the oil fields as a distracted ISIS fought to keep its control of the city and its surrounding area.
Deir Ezzour’s oil reserves account for approximately 50% of all of Syria’s oil, making it one of the most strategic areas that is now up for grabs.
Basically then, whoever controls Deir Ezzour’s oil helps to control the fate of the country.
As of now, the U.S. coalition has blocked the SDF from advancing into the city itself, potentially in a bid to avoid direct confrontations with Syrian and Russian troops who are now going block-to-block to clear out lingering ISIS positions.
(Soldier overlooking plumes of smoke in Deir Ezzour, AFP)
But the SAA crossing the Euphrates, which separated the SDF from regime forces, makes such confrontations inevitable.
Eventually, the SAA and SDF will run into each other in their respective attempts to grab the oil fields. How that confrontation will look depends on how strong each side pushes the other. For its part, Russia signaled its willingness to use violence.
On Sept. 16, the U.S. Coalition acknowledged that Russian jets struck SDF and U.S. positions, causing casualties to SDF fighters. Although no one was killed, the airstrikes demonstrate the fast-changing nature of the Syrian War, which is now increasingly between a solidified Assad and an empowered Kurdish agenda.
A few days before the airstrike, SDF’s commander of Deir Ezzour’s Military Council, Ahmed Abu Khawla stated: “If the Assad regime directs one bullet at us, we will respond.”
Kurdish Independence in the Making
(Kurdish-led Military Council of Deir Ezzour gives a press conference, AFP)
If the SDF can acquire enough of Deir Ezzour’s oil, not only do they get an extra source of revenue, but they simultaneously get more leverage in any future discussions of Kurdish autonomy in the New Syria. If the SDF and U.S. can secure the Syria-Iraq border town of Abu Kamal, they help to block the formation of the Shiite Crescent, where Iran’s influence extends uninterrupted from Tehran to Beirut.
However, if the Syrian regime can capture Deir Ezzour’s oil, they can put more pressure on the Kurds to acquiesce to a unity deal, keeping the same borders as pre-2011 Syria.
If the regime can get to Abu Kamal before the SDF, which currently looks likely, then it can establish a direct supply route from Tehran and Baghdad to Damascus and Beirut.
The SDF’s primary goal is to establish an independent ethno-state in northern Syria to represent the Kurdish peoples who are currently split between Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey.
To help achieve this objective, the SDF has pushed far south past where limits of where Kurds actually live in Syria. Deir Ezzour has few Kurds and is mainly composed of Arab Muslims. The SDF’s imminent capture of Raqqa, another majority-Arab city, is another example of strategic locations the Kurds are taking to give themselves more bargaining chips in any future negotiations over their autonomy.
Kurdish/Arab War Games
(Kurdish soldiers during a military exercise, AFP)
The spillover from any upcoming conflict between the SDF and the SAA has the potential to reach all of northern Syria. A fragile truce holds over the frontlines near Aleppo and Raqqa, but any escalation in Deir Ezzour may spark further confrontations, threatening to reignite parts of the country in war that are only just beginning to experience peace since the war started in 2011.
At the same time Syrian Kurds are seeking to gain leverage over the Syrian regime via mobilizing its military, Iraqi Kurds are moving forward with a referendum to formally move towards independence.
Both Kurdish movements have succeeded where most initially failed--by being reliable allies in the fight against ISIS, they have pushed their ethno-political agenda forward and forced their case for autonomy onto center stage.
So while civilians celebrate the ousting of ISIS from their towns in eastern Syria, they may need to brace for a more prolonged conflict between two much more well-equipped foes.
(The Destruction of Deir Ezzour AFP File)
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