Reports from Deir Ezzor are sketchy, and it is clear that the crisis there is far from over. However over the last few days there have been mounting indications that the worst of the crisis may be over, with the Syrian army apparently succeeding in seizing local hilltop positions and strongpoints from ISIS, as it seeks to break ISIS’s siege of Deir Ezzor’s vital airport.
A key factor in turning the tide against ISIS has been round the clock bombing by the Russian air force. This has included bomb runs by both aircraft originating in Khmeimim air base in western Syria, and TU22M3 medium range bomber aircraft flying from Mozdok air base in the northern Caucasus in southern Russia.
Interestingly a report by the normally reliable Al-Masdar news agency says that some of the Russian aircraft involved in these raids have been operating from Syrian air bases closer to Deir Ezzor than Khmeimim
Russian fighter jets took off from the Qamishli Military Airport on Tuesday, heading south towards the Deir Ezzor Governorate, where they conducted more than 40 airstrikes over Jabal Thardeh, Al-Rashidiyah, Al-Jubeileh, Maysaloun, Jirayah and Saqr Island.
This is clearly an intensive air campaign, with all the stops being pulled out. One report speaks of an air strike by TU22M3 bombers which destroyed an industrial facility used by ISIS to make weapons and ammunitions for its fighters. This is the Russian Defence Ministry’s report of the raid as reported by Al-Masda
On January 24 six Tupolev-22M3 bombers took off from an airdrome in Russia to fly over the territories of Iraq and Iran to eventually deal a massive air strike against an ammunition and explosives production facility and weapons and ammunition depots of the Islamic State, as well as groups of IS military vehicles and equipment in Deir ez-Zor province
One of the most interesting facts about the Russian Defence Ministry statement is that it also says that whilst over the target the TU22M3s were provided with air cover by Sukhoi-30SM and Sukhoi-35S fighters flying from Khmeimim air base. Clearly despite the change in administration in the US, and the apparent change in stance by Turkey, the Russians are taking nothing for granted, and are still providing air protection for their bombers when they carry out raids in Syria.
Another report says that another Russian air strike destroyed an ISIS convoy of 15 vehicles heading from Palmyra to Deir Ezzor. Clearly the Russians are targeting ISIS’s local industrial facilities, their warehouses and supply depots, and their local headquarters, whilst also trying to disrupt ISIS’s movement of its fighters.
The latter is especially difficult given how rapidly ISIS moves its convoys of fighters. Very quick response times are needed, which is why Russian aircraft are now using Syrian air bases closer to the fighting.
Though the importance of these Russian air strikes cannot be overstated, the major reason why the Syrian army is holding on in Deir Ezzor is obviously because of the courage and discipline of the Syrian soldiers there, who have continued resisting ISIS notwithstanding their perilous position.
It appears that ISIS’s siege of Deir Ezzor – like the Jihadi counter-offensives against Aleppo in the summer – is turning into a battle of attrition, with ISIS suffering heavy losses as it tries to storm the Syrian army’s positions defending the town, and as its fighters and supplies come under heavy bombing by the Russian air force.
The outcome of the battle of attrition in Aleppo in the summer was never seriously in doubt because the Syrian army’s supply lines to Syria’s heartland in south western Syria were never seriously threatened. Unfortunately it is impossible to be equally confident about the situation in Deir Ezzor, where ISIS has the Syrian troops surrounded, and where they are far distant from the main concentrations of the Syrian army in western Syria.
The situation of the Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor therefore remains very difficult, but based on the reports that the situation on the battlefield is starting to shift in their favour, it may be that the most dangerous and critical moment has passed.