Over the past week, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, which on July 6 declared itself the Islamic State caliphate, has made steady gains in the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor, along the border with Iraq.
Bolstered by financial and military gains from its June offensive in Mosul – photos on social media showed ISIS fighters driving tanks across the now-open border between Iraq and Syria – the group now has control of swaths of territory once held by the al-Qaida-backed Jabhat al-Nusra Front and other rebel groups.
We asked Aymenn al-Tamimi, an expert on extremist militants in Syria at the US-based Middle East Forum, to weigh in on ISIS gains, Jabhat al-Nusra’s retreat and the new wave of rebel fighters defecting to join ISIS ranks.
Syria Deeply: Where has ISIS made gains in eastern Syria in the last few weeks?
Aymenn al-Tamimi: Pretty much all the main rebel localities in Deir Ezzor province have now fallen to the Islamic State, including Abu Kamal, ash-Shuhail and al-Mayadeen – and now ISIS has moved into Deir Ezzor city. Along with all these new gains, there have been initiatives where men who have been fighting with other rebel groups will be spared if they give up their weapons and pledge their allegiance to ISIS.
This has happened for example in ash-Shuhail and Abu Kamal and in Khasham, in Deir Ezzor province. A number of people had to leave their homes because of the violence, and now they have been allowed to return provided they pledge their allegiance to IS. Nusra was the leading rebel group in the town of Ash-Shuheyl, fighting alongside Jaish al-Mu’ta al-Islami and other groups from the Islamic Front (e.g. Jaysh al-Islam). They have all since melted away, and their members have been spared by IS provided they give up their weapons and pledge allegiance. It represents a dramatic shift in ISIS’s holding power in the province.
Syria Deeply: How long had ISIS been battling to make these gains?
Tamimi: The military situation in the east has been trending in ISIS’s favor for months. ISIS had to leave Deir Ezzor province way back in late January and early February. Then the rebels launched multiple offensives to try to take al-Merkedeh, a locality in southern Hassakeh province. ISIS repelled the offensives and launched a counter-offensive into Deir Ezzor province, pushing deeply into it despite the back-and-forth over localities like Jadid Akidat. And that had been going on for some time, before the fall of Mosul. After the fall of Mosul, new weaponry was coming into Syria for ISIS and also with the gains they made in western Anbar, they were able to launch sustained offensives over the border, into places like Abu Kamel.
Syria Deeply: Have they come faster than you expected? It’s only been a month since the Mosul offensive.
Tamimi: This wasn’t faster than I expected. It was inevitable. The exact pace is difficult to determine. Once Abu Kamal fell, there was a sudden collapse in rebel resistance to ISIS. The other localities just fell one by one.
Syria Deeply: Where does Nusra stand now?
Tamimi: Nusra has basically acknowledged loss of control over the east. When [Nusra leader] Abu Mohammed al-Jolani made a speech only a few days ago announcing an Islamic emirate but made no mention of such authority extending into the east of Syria, it was a de facto acknowledgment of a loss of control there. Some of Nusra’s members were the first to give into ISIS, either by withdrawing from their military positions or by announcing their allegiance to ISIS.
Syria Deeply: What will we see in the east over the next few weeks?
Tamimi: The question is, how is ISIS now going to consolidate its control in the east? These are areas that fell away from the rebels who have been resisting ISIS’s advances. ISIS hasn’t exactly been welcomed into these places, and there have already been some demonstrations against IS in localities like Abu Kamal. It has to be remembered that some longtime prominent ISIS figures who have come from Deir Ezzor province, like Saddam al-Jamal – who was a defector from the Free Syrian Army in Abu Kamal – have a reputation for criminality.
ISIS is going to have to be conciliatory to some degree to win local support. They have already invested in some local initiatives like repairing a water plant in Barhouz in the Abu Kamal area, and also allowing the Syrian Arab Red Crescent to distribute water to locals in Abu Kamal. In terms of implementing their [strict Sharia] program, they will have to take it at a somewhat slower pace than they have in strongholds like Raqqa.