January 27, 2015

Syrian regime recruits Sunni tribes - a page from the American playbook

Dayr al-Zawr

Dayr al-Zawr is a key city on the Euphrates River between the city of al-Raqqah - self-claimed capital of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS, or "The Islamic State" as they prefer*) and the internationally-recognized border with Iraq. The city has been contested between the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Asad and Syrian rebel forces, most notably the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

Control of parts of the city have vacillated between the two sides since the beginning of the Syrian civil war in 2011. Much of the city's interesting and architecturally significant infrastructure has been destroyed, including several iconic bridges over the Euphrates River. Overall, the fighting has been a stalemate with neither side achieving full control of the area which sits at the heart of the critical Syrian oil industry - most of Syria's oil is located in the fields surrounding the city.

Dayr al-Zawr air base

Key facilities in Dayr al-Zawr are the air base (which doubles as the city's now-closed civil airport) and an adjacent air defense center. These two military facilities have been targets of the Syrian rebels for years. The base was on the verge of collapse late last year as ISIS joined the fight to take the base. See my article, The likely fall of Syria's Dayr al-Zawr air base - another slaughter on the horizon?

I suspect that given ISIS's brutal treatment of captured Syrian and Iraqi troops, the Syrian armed forces have put up a valiant defense of the base, pouring in reinforcements by air from garrisons further to the west. Control of the base is critical to the resupply and reinforcement effort. Should the situation worsen, an air evacuation may be the only way out for the Syrian soldiers defending the base.

In addition, the Syrian military seems to have taken a page from the American playbook of 2006-2007 in neighboring Iraq - the "Anbar Awakening." They approached the shaykhs of the local Sunni tribes in or near the areas controlled by ISIS and asked them if the Islamic state being created by ISIS is the form of government under which they wish to live. Of course, in these tribal areas in eastern Syria, the tribes are powerful and the shaykhs are not wont to lose that power to ISIS and live under what is arguably the most repressive form of Islam on the planet.

As it did in Iraq, the appeal resonates with the tribal leaders. As a result, some of the tribes have allied with the Syrian army and the locally formed National Defense Forces (NDF), which is a militia mostly composed of Ba'ath Party members. These militia are often referred to as shabihah** - "ghosts" or "phantoms" - by the rebels.

According to Syrian media, the combined forces of the Syrian armed forces, the NDF militias and the tribal units have been able to stop the ISIS advance on the base. Further reporting on January 27 claims that they have secured the entire perimeter of the base and pushed ISIS forces back at least one kilometer.

Failure to seize the air base has been a major setback for all of the opposition groups, be they the Free Syrian Army or ISIS. While on the map, it appears to be a flat area that should be easily overrun, in reality, the air base and adjacent air defense facility sit atop a plateau overlooking the city and the Euphrates River. The ridge is fairly steep - I remember standing in the city and being surprised at just how high and steep the approaches to the military bases were.

The stalemate continues in the east with neither side able to make lasting headway. Either ISIS or the FSA attack the military facilities, enjoy some temporary success, then are pushed back by reinforced Syrian troops. The bloodletting goes on unabated.
* In Arabic, it is الدولة الاسلامية في العراق والشام, or al-dawlat al-islamiyah fil-'iraq wal-sham. That translates to "the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (Syria or the Levant)." Much of the Arabic-language media uses an acronym comprising the first letters of the Arabic words - داعش, or da'ish, to describe the group, as have some official government spokespersons. The group punishes people for using the perceived derogatory term.

** In the trivia department, it is derived from the same root word used to describe American stealth aircraft.