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Deir Ezzor, at a crossroads with Daesh

PHOTO/REUTERS  -   Fotografía de archivo. Un miembro del Daesh ondea la bandera de Daesh en Siria

In 2014, Daesh managed to occupy a large part of the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, although there were areas such as a sector of the capital and the airport that resisted the offensive and remained under the control of Syrian government troops. It was in 2017 that the city was liberated by the Syrian Army from Daesh siege, while the Omar oil wells in the north of the province were recovered by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), although the remnants of the organisation were left scattered and hidden in the surrounding area, restarting again the kind of insurgency that Daesh carried out in 2013, in a rural and desert terrain that the organisation knew perfectly well, suitable for guerrilla warfare. Five years on, the province has seen hundreds and hundreds of deaths added to those already caused by the war against the Daesh caliphate in 2014-2017. Meanwhile the civilians, military and militias of Deir Ezzor live with the existence of a terrorist organisation that succumbed in March 2019 in Baghuz, but never left.  

Introduction

The Arab Spring of 2011 brought civil war to Syria, with Deir Ezzor witnessing bloody fighting between Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels and Bashar al-Assad's troops. Other rebel groups outside the FSA also fought against Bashar al-Assad's troops. This was the case of the al-Nusra Front, an autonomous affiliate of al-Qaeda in Syria, which managed to gain a foothold in some of the capital's neighbourhoods and was finally expelled in the spring of 2014 by Daesh fighters, who ended up capturing and killing the top leader of the al-Nusra Front in the area when he tried to escape disguised as a woman1.

In 2014, Daesh expelled all Syrian rebels from Deir Ezzor, leaving the capital's airport and part of it controlled by Bashar al-Assad's troops. The pro-regime forces endured a three-year siege by the jihadist organisation without managing to break their resistance. Meanwhile, the areas of the province under the yoke of Daesh suffered from its terror, witnessing the killing of civilians and opponents. As for specific events, there were women whom Daesh accused of adultery and subsequently murdered, or the case of a dentist in Mayadin, in Deir Ezzor, when in early November 2014 she was beheaded for treating, according to Daesh, patients of both sexes2.

In October 2017, Syrian troops from the 104th Brigade of the Republican Guard under the command of the late General Issam Zahreddine managed to break the siege and liberate the city the following month. Since then, far from disappearing, Daesh, since its defeat in Baghuz, has carried out countless ambushes and attacks against soldiers and civilians in and around Deir Ezzor, causing hundreds of deaths in that part of Syria alone.

The jihadist group, despite its weakness, has managed to resist counter-insurgency attacks. The blows they have received have not succeeded in eliminating them and they have continued to have the capacity to commit attacks and ambushes over the past year, as will be seen below, the effects of which have forced the citizens of Deir Ezzor to live with the existence of Daesh in their surroundings. 

Living with Daesh

The Arab-majority province of Deir Ezzor has three districts, Deir Ezzor, Abu Kamal and Mayadin. The main towns west of the Euphrates River would be controlled by the Syrian government and its troops, including those of the 4th Armoured Division, whose commander is Maher al-Assad, brother of the Syrian president, while in the north-east control would be exercised by the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). 

Deir Ezzor in its Abu Kamal district borders Iraq and Iraq's Anbar region, which has also been targeted by Daesh on many occasions. The Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC), Shi'a and allies of the Syrian government, are deployed in a large part of the Abu Kamal border, with a command centre and a fortified military installation in the area3, which allows the Iranian army to have a permanent reserve of thousands of men in Syrian territory, in charge of controlling the border with Iraq and the urban centre of the city of Deir Ezzor in the west, alongside the Syrian army. 

As Daesh activity in the area has increased over the past three years, some media have written about the resurgence of Daesh, but the truth is that it has never disappeared. This conviction is shared by many shepherds whose livestock has been stolen by the Jihadist organisation4 and by many residents of the rural areas of the province, who periodically suffer the activity of the terrorist organisation, which despite the hard blow suffered in Baghuz, has tried throughout this time to reorganise its militants dispersed in the desert area (Badiya) and in the rural and more remote areas of the province, where most of the ambushes and attacks have taken place. But these areas have also been used by Daesh to put its moral-religious police, or hisba, back into operation, where they prosecute behaviour that they believe deviates from sharia law. 

During the period of the failed caliphate, the hisba acted in the rearguard, banning, among other things, music and recreational games. It went so far that even the mannequins in clothes shops in the occupied areas of Syria and Iraq had to follow the most extreme sharia rules5.

But not only have the moral police been empowered, they have also demanded zakat or alms from shopkeepers and professionals in the surrounding area under threat of death. In this way, a teacher in the area explained how they contacted him and demanded payment of 700 dollars, which he subsequently handed over to a woman sent by Daesh6

As is well known, Islam is based on five pillars: 1) Declaration of faith 2) Prayer 3) Fasting 4) Perenigration to Mecca and 5) The zakat or alms that Muslims give to the neediest. This last point, among others, has been completely distorted by Daesh, which has demanded the payment of money under extortion. Therefore, we see how Daesh not only harasses the military and militias deployed in Deir Ezzor with violent insurgency, but also harasses civilians through its moral police, extorting money from citizens by demanding zakat.

Military personnel and militias deployed east and west of Deir Ezzor, both Bashar al-Assad's troops and the SDF, have suffered from Daesh's ongoing insurgency and guerrilla warfare, although some media and pundits have argued that it may be more accurate to leave the group as a guerrilla organisation rather than continuing to label Daesh as an insurgent entity7. What is really true is that guerrilla warfare is a part of violent insurgency and there is no violent insurgency without guerrilla warfare, the two are inseparable. All violent insurgent movements exercise guerrilla warfare to violently change the regime of a country or to create a parallel state structure in a part of it, as Daesh did in 2014 in Raqqa and Mosul or Hayat Tahir al-Sham (HTS) did in Idlib, both of which still remain. To leave Daesh as a guerrilla group without further pretensions would be a mistake, because its pretensions are well known and in its day it materialised them in its failed caliphate that occupied half of Syria.

On the other hand, counterinsurgency efforts have been effective in pursuing the remnants of Daesh in its hideouts in the Badiya desert, in the province of Deir Ezzor and surrounding areas. This has been evidenced by the numerous operations conducted by the Syrian Army's 4th Division. In the east, the Syrian Democratic Forces have also managed to neutralise numerous Daesh militants. 

There have been constant warnings from SDF commanders of an increase in Daesh activity in the area over the past two years. Lukman Khalil warned of a defeat of Baghuz that was not definitive, "people could not be more wrong. Now they are fighting us again from the shadows8". This military commander described Daesh activity in a territory he has known well for the past three years and warned the world of the need to remain vigilant because "they are growing again and learning to be patient again, and this time they are doing it on both sides of the river". Similarly, Mazbun Abdi, another SDF leader, said in Hasakah that "Daesh may rise again to threaten the world order". All this should be taken seriously, as these militias have known Daesh well, having been at the forefront of the jihadist organisation's defeat in Raqqa, Kobane, Hasakah and Deir Ezzor during the failed caliphate. 

Although the article is directed at Daesh activity in Deir Ezzor, we know that the territory is in the central core of the triangle formed by the provinces of Hasakah, Homs and Raqqa, which have also suffered from the terrorist organisation's ongoing insurgency. 

In the province of Hasakah, between the night of 20 January and the early hours of the 21st, one of the organisation's most daring actions took place, with an assault on Ghwayran prison in the capital, starting the attack with the explosion of two truck bombs at the entrances to the prison, after which they launched an offensive against the facilities with the aim of freeing the Jihadist inmates.

Once inside, they completed the release of hundreds of jihadist prisoners, after attacking the Kurdish guards, killing some and capturing others. Subsequently, the terrorist organisation issued a statement to the Amaq agency9, in which it counted more than 800 jihadists who finally managed to escape from the prison, although official Syrian media have not specified the number of fugitives who managed to escape, many of them minors.

Dozens of Daesh militants carried out the operation, which lasted for more than a week until the situation could be brought under control by the Kurdish militias, among whom there were many casualties. From the way it was carried out and the days it lasted, everything seems to indicate that the offensive manoeuvre was planned in three scenarios: a) in the prison itself b) in the surrounding area and c) in the neighbourhoods nearby, in order to hinder the reaction of the Kurdish SDF as it approached the prison compound. 

In Homs, Daesh carried out an ambush on 5 March in which 13 members of the Syrian army were killed when the bus they were travelling in was attacked in the desert area in the centre of the province10

Raqqa, for its part, witnessed one of Daesh's bloodiest ambushes. On 20 June, a Syrian army bus was attacked at dawn on the Homs-Raqqa road, killing 15 soldiers11. This area of the Badiya desert has witnessed serious attacks as it is ideal for Daesh cells to carry out ambushes with IEDs, small arms or fake checkpoints.

The following is a summary of some of the most serious attacks carried out by the Daesh terrorist organisation this year in Deir Ezzor, according to information in most cases from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (OSDH), which has informants in the area.

3 January
Daesh carried out an ambush using missiles and cannon fire against members of the Syrian army in the desert area of Deir Ezzor, killing five soldiers. Daesh takes advantage of such roads in desert locations to wait for and ambush military and SDF members.

30 January 
During the night and taking advantage of the desert fog, Daesh members took part in an attack on air intelligence positions in Deir Ezzor, killing three members of the Abu Nizar group12

10 February
On the night of 9 February, Daesh members ambushed a checkpoint in the desert area east of Deir al-Zawr, killing five SDF militia members. 
The same night in Khazaret al-Bushams west of Deir al-Zawzor, Daesh cells killed two more SDF members.

23 April
Two members of the Asayish or Internal Security Forces were killed by Daesh. Three SDF fighters were similarly killed in an attack by Daesh cells on their checkpoint north of Deir Ezzor.

28 April
Seven ethnic Kurds were killed after being attacked in a house where they were celebrating the end of the Ramadan fast (Iftar) by Daesh members.

30 April
Four members of the Iranian-affiliated Iraqi "Said Al-Shuhadaa" militia were killed in the Syrian desert in an attack by Daesh cells on the road between Palmyra and Deir Ezzor.

2 June
Daesh members ambushed a bus carrying pro-Iranian militias in the Deir Ezzor desert area, killing four people.
 
3 August
Daesh cells attacked an SDF vehicle in the al-Bashira area of Deir al-Zawr killing two of its members.

11 September
Daesh members set up a roadblock on the Al-Khurafi road between Al-Hasakah and Deir Ezzor, capturing six SDF members.

The captured were returning from the Omar oil field, about 15km north of Mayadin district, where they were receiving military training, after being driven to an abandoned location, they were killed by numerous gunshots. 

3 October
Daesh killed four government security personnel and wounded three others.

3 November
Daesh killed Asayish leader Osama Abdel Rahman by shooting him from a motorbike while he was riding a similar vehicle in an area controlled by the SDF13

Conclusions

If this article has made one thing clear, it is that Daesh moves in the rural and desert area of Deir Ezzor as Bin Laden did in Tora Bora (Afghanistan). Daesh has managed to make its presence felt not only at the level of violent insurgency, but also through its moral police or hisba in rural areas that are less policed by the counter-insurgency.
In early October, the hisba killed a boy in a village in Deir Ezzor who was accused of prostitution. Days before this event, they killed a married couple accused of practising witchcraft14.

In the same way, their collaborators in the area demand zakat from traders and professionals15. For all these reasons, the inhabitants of the province of Deir Ezzor continue to live with the problem, three and a half years after the end of the caliphate. 

According to a July 2022 report by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres16, the terrorist organisation could have between 6,000 and 10,000 jihadists in Syria and Iraq. It is easy to deduce from the report that many of these jihadists would be in the province of Deir Ezzor, ready to hinder the activity of all counterinsurgency actors, who are aware of the impossibility of lowering their guard even for a moment against the terrorist organisation, as several SDF commanders in the area have already pointed out, on the danger and threat posed by Daesh activity on the ground, because if there is one thing that has characterised Daesh in the province of Deir Ezzor, it is its resilience, which is why it continues to carry out attacks practically every week, outstripping terrorist activity in the rest of the Syrian provinces.

The Syrian army has deployed major operations to wipe out the remnants of the organisation in the Badiya desert and western Deir Ezzor, but the insurgency continues. Rural areas and the desert are the areas from which it exerts its influence. The organisation has been less active in urban areas in the west because of the surveillance it is subjected to by Iranian militias and the Syrian army. For this reason, most of the attacks by the Jihadist organisation in Deir Ezzor have taken place in rural areas, especially in the north-east of the province17.

As for recruiting new Jihadists, the Jihadist organisation does not find it easy after the trail of blood left behind by its failed caliphate, although Daesh knows how to move in rural areas where the future of young people is more difficult and the organisation uses gifts and indoctrination talks to recruit these young people with no future in some of the recovered areas, where the risk of falling back into Daesh's nets is high.

The increase in Daesh activity in Deir Ezzor places the province at a real crossroads18, bearing in mind that the Jihadist organisation usually uses a combination for its ambushes and attacks that in this case has become sinister: night and desert.
 
Luis Montero is a political scientist and contributor to Sec2Crime. Analyst and researcher at the Observatory against Terrorist Threats and Jihadist Radicalisation (OCATRY)

REFERENCES
 

1-    DE DARK Edwar, digital Al-Monitor. 21 de julio del 2014. Se quitan los guantes entre el régimen sirio y el Estado Islámico.
 https://www-al--monitor-com.translate.goog/originals/2014/07/syria-regime-aleppo-islamic-state-deir-ezzor-war.html?_x_tr_sl=en&_x_tr_tl=es&_x_tr_hl=es&_x_tr_pto=sc
2-    INFOBAE, 14 de noviembre del 2014. La ONU denuncia que la "policía moral" del ISIS imparte latigazos y ordena amputaciones.
https://www.infobae.com/2014/11/14/1608874-la-onu-denuncia-que-la-policia-moral-del-isis-imparte-latigazos-y-ordena-amputaciones/  
3-    NOTICIAS DE ISRAEL. Fuente: Kyra Rauschenbach, analista del Proyecto de Amenazas Críticas en el American Enterprise Institute. 29 de julio del 2020. El atrincheramiento de la infraestructura estratégica de Irán en Siria.
https://israelnoticias.com/iran/atrincheramiento-de-la-infraestructura-estrategica-de-iran-en-siria/
4-    VALDEZ  Naye, Diario La Verdad, 21 de noviembre del 2021. Isis está robando miles de ovejas en Siria para financiar células terroristas.
 https://laverdadnoticias.com/mundo/Isis-esta-robando-miles-de-ovejas-en-Siria-para-financiar-celulas-terroristas-20211121-0088.html
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https://www.diariosur.es/internacional/oriente-proximo/201611/06/raqa-ciudad-modelo-daesh-20161106143015-rc.html
6-    ABDURRAHMAN Omar, North Press Agency, 5 de octubre del 2022. ISIS Continúa Aterrorizando A Los Residentes De Deir Ez-Zor De Siria Para Pagar Tarifas
https://npasyria-com.translate.goog/en/85091/?_x_tr_sl=en&_x_tr_tl=es&_x_tr_hl=es&_x_tr_pto=sc
7-    BOUSSEL Pierre, The Emirates Policy Center (EPC) .19 de octubre del 2022. Badiyah Desert: The Last ISIS Stronghold?. ( Versión original en inglés)
https://epc.ae/en/details/featured/badiyah-desert-the-last-isis-stronghold- 
8-    CHULOV Martin, Fuente: Periódico The Guardian. Publicado por Rojava azadí Madrid. 14  de Octubre del 2021. ‘Una tregua, no una pérdida’: El Estado Islámico se está reconstruyendo en Siria, dicen las fuerzas kurdas. 
https://rojavaazadimadrid.org/una-tregua-no-una-perdida-el-estado-islamico-se-esta-reconstruyendo-en-siria-dicen-las-fuerzas-kurdas/
9-    ZULOAGA.J.M Diario La Razón, 23 de enero del 2022) El Estado Islámico dice haber liberado a 800 de sus presos en una cárcel de Siria. 
https://www.larazon.es/internacional/20220123/5c36qf3zpfd6ha5l62fjkrxnuu.html
10-    TeleSURtv.net. Fuente: Agencia siria SANA 6 de marzo del 2022. Mueren 13 soldados en emboscada a autobús en Homs, Siria
https://www.telesurtv.net/news/siria-ataque-soldados-muertos-emboscada-20220306-0013.html
11-    ANFNews Redacción. Fuente: Observatorio Sirio Derechos Humanos. 20 de junio del 2022. 15 soldados sirios asesinados por el ISIS en el desierto de Raqqa.
https://anfespanol.com/rojava-norte-de-siria/15-soldados-sirios-asesinados-por-el-isis-en-el-desierto-de-raqqa-36266
12-     Consejo editorial Deir Ezzor 24, 30 de enero del 2022, daesh killed and  injured  a number of assad  militias in the desert
https://deirezzor24.net/en/daesh-killed-and-injured-a-number-of-assad-militias-in-the-desert/
13-     ABDULRAHMAN Omar, North Press Agency, 02  de noviembre del 2022. ISIS afirma que un ataque mató al líder de Asayish en Deir ezzor. 
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https://npasyria-com.translate.goog/en/84566/?_x_tr_sl=en&_x_tr_tl=es&_x_tr_hl=es&_x_tr_pto=sc
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       https://deirezzor24.net/en/daesh-compels-people-to-pay-al-zakat-in-deir-ezzor/
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18-     NORTH PRESS AGENCY. 6 de noviembre del 2022. ISIS Increases Activity In Syria’s Deir Ez-Zor Amid Fears Of Return. (Versión original en inglés).
 https://npasyria-com.translate.goog/en/86836/?_x_tr_sl=en&_x_tr_tl=es&_x_tr_hl=es&_x_tr_pto=sc