Reports are circulating in the Middle East that over the last few days ISIS has started pulling back some of its fighters from Deir Ezzor to its ‘capital’ Raqqa, which is coming under increasing threat from the Kurdish militia and the advancing Syrian army.
This news comes after reports that a senior Syrian government official has recently visited Deir Ezzor to inspect the defences of the encircled town and presumably to give some encouragement to its population and defenders.
There have also been reports that the Russian air force has been successfully air dropping supplies to the Syrian troops defending Deir Ezzor and its airport.
Reports of the pull-back of ISIS fighters to Raqqa also comes following reports of further advances by the Syrian army against ISIS in north eastern Aleppo province where the key ISIS strong point of Deir Hafer fell to the Syrian army today, completing ISIS’s rout in this area. This brings the Syrian army even closer to Raqqa.
Reports from Raqqa speak of ISIS digging in and building up fortifications in the town as it prepares for what is increasingly starting to look like a last stand in the town it has made its ‘capital’.
If ISIS is indeed pulling back fighters from Deir Ezzor then that will provide much needed relief to the Syrian soldiers and civilians trapped in Deir Ezzor, who have been under continuous siege in this eastern desert town since it was first encircled by Jihadi fighters back in 2012.
In January this year this siege became critical when a massive ISIS assault on the town managed to sever connections between the town and its airport. Though the Syrian troops in the town have repeatedly attempted since then to link up with the Syrian troops defending the airport, these attempts so far have been unsuccessful.
If ISIS really is pulling back some of its fighters from Deir Ezzor, then this may be a sign not just of the organisation’s concerns about its continued hold of its ‘capital’ – Raqqa – but that it has despaired of capturing Deir Ezzor.
It is sometimes said that if ISIS were to lose Raqqa and the other territories it controls it would simply revert into being the pure and simple terrorist organisation that it was before it set up its Caliphate following its capture of Mosul in 2014.
I question whether that is actually so. Loss of its territory would render ISIS’s claim to be the “Islamic State” unsustainable, and its leader – Ibrahim Abu Bakr Al-Baghdadi – could no longer plausibly claim to be Islam’s Caliph. His and ISIS’s claim to embody the will of God on earth would be shown to be untrue. The loss of prestige ISIS would suffer would be total, and I doubt the organisation would survive it.
I am sure ISIS’s leadership – including Al-Baghdadi – know this, which is why I expect them to defend Raqqa fanatically to the last man, and to prefer to die doing so rather than escape or surrender.
What this means is that if ISIS is finally driven out of Mosul and away from Deir Ezzor then an apocalyptic battle for Raqqa will follow – rather like the fanatical Nazi defence of Berlin in April 1945 – with Al-Baghdadi and his followers – like Hitler in Berlin – preferring to die in Raqqa rather than escape from it and witness their defeat.