TLDR Upfront: The battle against ISIS continues on two crucial fronts in Iraq & Syria as mirror images of one another. In Mosul, a coalition of forces have pushed ISIS back into only a half of the city, but civilian casualties mount under an intensifying air campaign led by US warplanes. In Syria, ISIS expands its footprint after securing Palmyra by launching a new attack of Deir Ezzor. A key city for control of oil, already cut in half by ISIS for 5 years, it now lays quartered, cut off from all supply except by air drop. Between these two cities alone, over 800,000 civilians are now trapped in situations similar to Aleppo over the summer.
Full Context in the Back:
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If the territorial state of ISIS is a body, then the province of Deir Ezzor is its heart. And that heart pumps oil essential to understanding ISIS’s success as an emerging state-actor. To understand this requires revisiting the point when ISIS switched from an insurgency conducting guerrilla warfare to openly seizing and governing territory – setting in motion the non state-actor’s rapid growth in both militants and finances.(1)
ISIS first took control of the city of Ar-Raqqah in the province of the same name in 2013. It wasn’t a conquest insomuch as change in management. The city was already under salafi takfiri rule by a mujahedeen coalition that included ISIS as well as Al-Queda affiliated Al-Nusrah, now know as Jabet Fateh al-Sham.(2)
One day ISIS just up and said “Hey this thing – we’re going to call it ours now,” and when everyone started counting salafi takfiri militants, it became apparent that ISIS had not been sending troops to the front like all the other civil war participants and now outnumbered everyone else. The seizure became a fait de accompli and precipitated the series of events that led to the rupture between ISIS and Al-Queda. Following this success, ISIS leveraged Sunni protests against Iraqi President Nouri Al-Maliki to seize Fallujah.
Between these two cities lay the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. The province is crucial because nearly two-thirds of all known Syrian reserves of oil reside in this province, and the city of Deir Ezzor is an important hub for that industry.(3) By controlling Deir Ezzor province, ISIS would control the oil.
If ISIS could control the city of the same name, they’d control the crossroads and all the infrastructure. Despite ISIS quickly taking control of the province, the city itself held out. In the map above, it is the small red dot of Syrian civilians and soldiers loyal the Assad regime maintaining a resistance as around them a sea of salafi takfiri grey closes in on all sides. Pushed into one-half of the city since 2014, the soldiers and several hundred thousand civilians have survived because of the airport through which supplies could be flown in.
Fast forward through the Syrian and Iraq conflict and to Deir Ezzor’s east, ISIS has lost all of its territory in Iraq except Mosul, isolated now and is itself surrounded in the far northwest. To the west of Deir Ezzor, ISIS had advanced towards Damascus through Palmyra, but it lost that city to Assad’s forces in 2015.
However over this last summer when the Syrian Army and their allies were pulled to the northwest into the Battle of Five Armies at Aleppo, ISIS launched a counter-offensive to retake Palmyra. It’s a version of strategic whack-a-mole. Assad doesn’t have sufficient troops to hold the whole country, so when he turns his back on Palmyra, for instance, to take Aleppo, ISIS will take Palmyra away from him.(4) This is despite what were described as ‘heavy’ Russian air strikes, exposing the limit of Russian power.(5) Adding insult to injury, ISIS took a small Russian base and then broadcast selfies of the munitions and buildings they captured all over the internet.(6)
All your base are belong to us.
Unfortunately, shortly after, the emerging state-actor resumed its campaign of iconoclasm against monuments, destroying major ruins that the city is known for. (7)
Now ISIS has turned and launched a heavy final push to complete taking Deir Ezzor itself. They’ve cut the divided city in-half again effectively creating two quarters. The quarter with all the civilian population has now been cut off from the quarter with the airport in it – a quarter ISIS now controls. Without that airport, there is no reliable resupply, for either the Syrian military forces or for humanitarian aid to the civilians in the remaining part. ISIS has now encircled Deir Ezzor and is squeezing to collapse that last quarter. Their goal is to gain complete control over the city, all of its oil infrastructure, the strategic crossroads, and free up the troops that have been occupied here for the better part of two years to go cause havoc elsewhere.
Because without Deir Ezzor’s oil, ISIS is little more than another insurgency. I simulated this as an aspect of my research, comparing what – if everything else was held equal – would happen if ISIS’s finances from oil were reduced? Four graphs below depict selected elements of ISIS’s performance: the number of people ISIS controls, the number of ISIS militants, what percentage of those militants are foreign and the surplus of cash above and beyond operations in Syria & Iraq. Four scenarios are compared. A Baseline that has been held steady since it was written in early 2014 which is the simulation of ISIS’s performance in Syria & Iraq absent any foreign intervention from 2013 through 2020. The other three lines 2A-2C represent what happens when, all else being held equal, ISIS’s ability to gain funding is reduced by halving the price of oil (2B), quartering it (2C) or removing it altogether (2A).
All simulations 2013-2020 & assumes no foreign intervention.
What is apparent is that doesn’t really matter how valuable the oil is, as long as there is oil there. When there is no valuable resource, in this case oil, ISIS is completely knocked out of commission as an emerging state-actor
The state of ISIS has a body – it has blood, and that blood is oil, or rather the monies that can be gained by it. This isn’t unique in emerging state actors. The Taliban didn’t have oil, but it did control opium production, another high value resource that requires territorial control. It’s not clear whether emerging state-actors find ways to control valuable fixed-resources that they must conquer territory to control; or is it the presence of valuable fixed-resources that enables an insurgency to gain control of territory and begin governing it to become an emerging state-actors.
But the toll on humans in the different scenarios is clear. When the same simulations are compared across three human impact factors: displaced refugees, ISIS caused civilian deaths due to ethnic cleansing-like behavior which is a rate over time and the total civilian deaths over time which is a cumulative at any point in time.
All simulations 2013-2020 & assumes no foreign intervention.
There are now some 100,000 citizens in that remaining quarter of Deir Ezzor without access to supplies.(8) It’s one thing to mathematically model these atrocities and quite another to understand what awaits the civilians in Deir Ezzor if they are overrun. Syria forces are attempting a relief attack of their own supported by Russian bombers. However as the map shows the city is deep in ISIS territory. The United Nations is also conducting air-drops of food and supplies to the civilians. (9)
But Deir Ezzor is not the only city under siege. In a reversal to the situation in Deir Ezzor, the ISIS position in Mosul, Iraq has been cut in half. Confined to the western portion of the city the semi-circle around it occupied by the coalition of Iraqi Army, Shia militias and Kurdish fighters all backed by US airpower. It is not clear if ISIS attempted a “belts” strategy as they executed in Ramadi – where they let attacks into the city downtown, but retain the suburbs and then attack them from all sides. (10)
But clearly the offensive has stalled. Launched months ago, no one thought the Mosul offensive would be quick or clean. But it is proving to be exceptionally brutal when compared Fallujah, and a lot of that is falling on the some 750,000 civilians still left in the city.
The civilians in Deir Ezzor are under threat from ISIS if they should win. And certainly living in Mosul under ISIS is no paradise. But the air campaign conducted by the US is beginning to intensify in an effort to break through the stalled lines.
Though the US has not conducted the kind of unrestricted bombing campaigns on Mosul as the Russians did on Aleppo, nor used the same kind of weapons, there is concern that this restraint is being pushed to the limit as air attacks intensified near the end of December and early January. There can be no doubt from where these air strikes come from. As far as I know unlike Syria the only operational air force in Iraq right now belongs to the US. Few are paying attention to this increase in airpower, consumed with inward navel-gazing. Legitimately that navel appears to be on fire. But we have to still not lose sight of what is going on in our name in the rest of the world and hold our leaders, even the new ones, accountable. This is not to shirk from the mission of assisting local actors to oust ISIS with airpower. But it also means we don\’t turn a blind eye to that cost. (11)
Buildings destroyed during previous clashes are seen as Iraqi forces battle with Islamic State militants in Mosul, Iraq. REUTERS/Ahmed Jadallah
Deir Ezzor in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, two cities currently under siege in mirror images of one another. Between them nearly 800,000 civilians at risk of imminent death. It doesn’t have the long history going back to 2011 of Aleppo or the factional-complexity of the Battle of Five Armies but these conflicts are just as important to the arc of the region and the human impact of these conflicts.
(1) Clancy, Timothy “Dynamics of ISIS – An Emerging State Actor.” In 34th International Conference of the System Dynamics Society. Delft Netherlands, 2016.
(2) In the space of time it took me to write this post Al-Nusrah changed its name again after merging with several other militant groups in Syria. They are now the I swear they’re like that band that plays every Saturday night at the club with the same three members but every week the band has a new name and someone else gets to be the drummer. Their new name is Hay’at Tahrir al Sham which is Arabic for “Time to make new business cards.” For those who want to learn more about the merger or what’s going on behind it as always Long War Journal has top notch reporting and context. http://www.longwarjournal.org/archives/2017/01/al-qaeda-and-allies-announce-new-entity-in-syria.php
(3) Bacci, Alessandro. “Syria’s Oil Sector in the Fall of 2014.” Alessandro Bacci’s Middle East, November 6, 2014. http://www.alessandrobacci.com/2014/11/syrias-oil-sector-in-fall-of-2014.html.