The city of Deir Ezzor in eastern Syria, scene of a recent mass abduction by the Islamic State, looks to be a decisive battle between ISIS and the Syrian army in the eastern region of the country—and there are indications ISIS is winning.
“Hundreds of combatants and civilians have been killed over the past week, and Russian aircraft have been dropping supplies to beleaguered army units,” CNN reports.
“The regime of President Bashar al-Assad is battling to retain a foothold in the area,” the report continues:
It still controls the military airport to the south, but ISIS claims to have overrun several regime-held districts at the beginning of the week, taking advantage of a sandstorm that grounded military aircraft. But in the last few days, Russian and possibly Syrian warplanes have carried out airstrikes against ISIS areas, while the already desperate situation of civilians has worsened.
Analysts said Russia was shifting more air power to the Deir Ezzor region to repel the ISIS onslaught, with the Institute for the Study of War saying Russian bombs were the only hope of staving off “the immediate defeat of regime forces.”
Rudaw relays Russian claims of killing 60 Islamic State militants in airstrikes over the weekend, although the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the death toll was only 44, and it was “unclear how many of these were ISIS casualties.”
Some of the dead were most likely civilians caught in the crossfire. Reuters reports a later estimate of 63 dead from towns near Deir Ezzor from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, including nine children. According to this account, the death toll increased from the initial SOHR estimate because many of the wounded died from their injuries.
CNN notes that the Syrian government blames most civilian casualties on ISIS, portraying them as the deliberate massacre of innocent civilians. Independent confirmation is nearly impossible, given the heavy urban combat in progress across the city, as ISIS and the Assad regime wage a block-by-block battle for control. Thousands of civilians are reportedly fleeing the city as the siege grinds on.
The Islamic State has its own news agency, Amaq, which has been running photos of weapons—including missiles—ostensibly captured from defeated Syrian military units, along with pictures of Syrian troops taken captive. There are also rumors that some of the supplies Russia delivered to besieged Syrian troops ended up in the Islamic State’s hands.
Another disturbing report relayed by CNN has ISIS making progress at recruiting local tribes to help its battle against Assad and his “infidel” allies. Sources told the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights that several such alliances had been struck.
Deir Ezzor is not only the final regime stronghold in eastern Syria. It would become a sort of second capital for the Islamic State, after its primary Syrian headquarters of Raqqa. The surrounding region holds many valuable oil fields, and the roads out of Deir Ezzor provide access to ISIS conquests in both Syria and Iraq. A decisive defeat for the regime in Deir Ezzor, despite major air support from Russia, would be a huge morale boost for Islamic State fighters.
The Assad regime will deserve much of the credit for its own defeat. An article in Newsweek this weekend charged Assad and his Russian partners with deliberately allowing the city to starve, with a rapidly growing number of civilians beyond the reach of relief agencies, because Assad wanted to score political points against both ISIS and the international community—the former for visiting such suffering upon the people of Deir Ezzor and the latter for sending too many relief supplies to districts under the Islamic State’s control.