News comes daily of the Syrian Army’s advance through one village after another towards the besieged eastern city of Deir ez-Zor. Since the summer of 2014, the Islamic State (IS) has surrounded the city and starved its people. An official of the World Food Programme told me last month that if the siege continued, there would be a certain outbreak of cholera. Syria’s Army was able to break through the Ash-Shula crossroads and enter Deir ez-Zor, holding a part of the western city and relieving the regiment that had — almost single-handedly — prevented the IS takeover of the city. But even as the Syrian Army began to fortify its position, the IS hit hard with great determination to defend their citadel in Al-Shoulah. This is not an easy battle, even as the Syrian Army has been backed by Russian cruise missile strikes and by its own air force.
A complex battlefield
Syria’s battlefield is so complex and fast changing that earlier this month, about 300 IS fighters and an equal number of their family members boarded buses at the Lebanese border in western Syria to come to Deir ez-Zor. This was a deal struck by IS, the Syrian government, the Lebanese government, and Hezbollah. A tough campaign by the Lebanese armed forces and Hezbollah managed to eject the IS from the highlands above the Beqaa Valley. These 300 fighters made a deal for safe passage to Deir ez-Zor if they would hand over the bodies of Hezbollah fighters taken in 2014. The convoy of 11 buses carrying these IS troops was stopped in the Syrian desert by U.S. air strikes. Half of them turned back for the Syrian government areas, while the rest attempted to move forward to certain death or capture in the west. The tourist buses of their fighters were stuck — like sitting ducks — underneath the firepower of the U.S. Air Force.
Meanwhile, north of Deir ez-Zor, the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) moved under heavy U.S. airpower to seize about 14 out of 22 of Raqqa’s neighbourhoods. SDF spokesperson Mustafa Bali said that there are only about 1,000 IS fighters left in the city, which now has one hospital and little other resources for a population that has lived in terror for the past few years. The fight has been going slowly, as the IS has positioned car bombs and mines to slow the entry of the SDF. On Friday, the SDF captured Raqqa University. Its tanks, flying the flag of the Syrian Kurdish YPG militia group, made it clear that this was largely a Syrian Kurdish operation. This continues to rankle Syria’s northern neighbour, Turkey, which has moved its troops into Syria (a Turkish military officer said that the YPG has been targeting its troops and artillery positions near the Syrian border town of A’zaz).
There is a great deal of psychological warfare at work, with the battlefield shrouded in competing interests and with facts hard to discern through the smoke. Each of the main forces (the Syrian Army, the SDF, the Iranian militias, Hezbollah, the Free Syrian Army, the Turkish army and the U.S. military) claims to be at the forefront of the battle to defeat the IS. That has become the focus. The government of Bashar al-Assad is no longer the target of the major armed powers (Turkey, the U.S. and the Gulf Arabs) that had pledged to remove him from his presidency. Even the Free Syrian Army has turned its guns against the IS, as it recently did in south Daraa, where it defeated the Saifullah al-Maslul group in the villages of al-Abdali and al-Majahid. This is a dramatic turn of affairs.
The UN envoy for Syria, Staffan de Mistura, said recently that he hopes that a new UN process for peace will open up in October. Mr. de Mistura is focused on the region around Idlib, in northern Syria, and in pockets of Damascus where the non-IS rebels have congregated for what will be a last stand. The main group here is Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), which is closely linked to al-Qaeda and has been shown to be a beneficiary of Gulf Arab funds and theological assistance. With the Syrian Army and its allies busy with the fight against the IS in Deir ez-Zor, HTS fighters have deepened their hold on Idlib in preparation for the inevitable attack by the Syrian Army. It is this attack which will have major consequences for civilian lives that Mr. de Mistura wishes to circumvent.
Missteps towards peace
President Assad could have been coaxed to the table after these battlefield successes. He might very well have been in the mood for concessions from a position of strength. Just when Mr. de Mistura seemed prepared to hold preparatory talks with Damascus, other parts of the UN decided to increase the pressure on the Syrian government. Catherine Marchi-Uhel, head of the UN’s International, Impartial and Independent Mechanism, held a press conference in early September to say that she was prepared to hold trials and prosecute members of Mr. Assad’s government for war crimes. The UN released a report that suggested that the Syrian government had used chemical weapons in Khan Sheikhoun in April (Syria denied that it had used toxic gases against its people because “it does not have them in the first place”). Israel, then, conducted an air strike against what Syrian officials say was not a chemical weapons plant but a warehouse for Hezbollah’s weapons that it received from Iran. The statements by Ms. Marchi-Uhel, the UN report and the Israeli attack will simply result in hardened positions from Damascus.
It is likely that as soon as the Syrian Army has taken hold of Deir ez-Zor, it will move against the HTS in Idlib. There is no possibility for these fighters to be resupplied, since their regional allies (Turkey and the Gulf Arabs) have largely abandoned them. The lead negotiator for the opposition side — Riad Hijab (a former Syrian Prime Minister) — has refused to come to the talks. His language sounds dated, with the most anachronistic demand being the removal of Mr. Assad. Failure to come to the table leaves Mr. Hijab culpable for the prolongation of a war that should end as soon as possible. The battle for Idlib will be dangerous and bloody, with a hardened and desperate HTS fighting an exhausted Syrian Arab Army and its equally stretched allies.
Vijay Prashad’s latest book is ‘The Death of the Nation and the Future of the Arab Revolution’