Though the fact is barely reported, the siege of the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor – more so than the siege of Raqqa – has become the focus of the Syrian war.
Deir Ezzor’s strategic importance was explained previously by Afra’a Dagher here, and the city has faced a sustained attempt to capture it by ISIS since January.
ISIS’s attack on Deir Ezzor in January – made possible by the US air raid in September on Syrian army positions in the nearby Thardah mountains – almost succeeded in capturing the city, and severed the link between the city and its nearby airport, which is now the subject of a separate siege by ISIS fighters.
With road links to other government held areas of Syria cut, and with the airport encircled, the Syrian troops and civilians trapped in the city have depended on supplies air lifted into the city by parachute and helicopter.
The Syrian troops in the city for their part have made repeated attempts to break through to the airport. However though these attempts have managed to gain some ground, lack of heavy armour has made an infantry advance by the Syrian troops across the city’s cemetery area controlled by ISIS to the airport exceptionally difficult, and so far ISIS has managed to defeat all these attempts.
It is a virtual certainty that the city would been captured by ISIS by now were it not for the powerful air support provided by the Russian air force to the Syrian troops besieged in the city.
The Russians have made it very clear that one of the reasons they agreed to the ceasefire and the de-escalation areas in western and southern Syria is because they want to release Syrian troops for an advance from Palmyra to Deir Ezzor to lift the siege there. The Russians have also said that they wish to focus their air assets on the city.
Deir Ezzor is 200 km by road from Palmyra across ISIS controlled territory. This is a huge distance in terms of the Syrian war, and the Syrian army has despite Russian urging repeatedly balked at Russian proposals that it mount an offensive along this road.
Though the defenders of Deir Ezzor seem to be giving a good account of themselves, the lifting of the siege of the city must however now be the priority. If it is achieved then ISIS will have lost the greater part of its territory in Syria, and will be isolated in its last refuge in Raqqa.
There are reports that Syrian troops are finally being assembled for this offensive. If it is launched and if it is successful, this offensive will probably spell the start of the final stage of the war.