by K.E. Truitte
The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) continues to lose ground fighting the reinvigorated Iraqi Security Forces in Iraq. Its blitzkrieg against the Kurdish YPG, the national army of Syrian Kurdistan, in the northern Syrian town of Kobani has been stopped dead. The group’s freedom of movement has been restricted by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes on convoys and command and control locations.. ISIS is beginning to feel the squeeze as its forward momentum has been blunted for the first time since the seizure of Fallujah in January 2014. In response to these recent setbacks, the group has increased its push against the Assad regime in Syria, aiming to regain the offensive in the central Syrian Desert. In engaging with Assad’s forces instead of fighting other rebel groups or Kurdish forces, ISIS is attempting to make operational gains without invoking the wrath of coalition airstrikes.
Since they began, coalition airstrikes have been criticized from within Syria. Moderate rebel groups are distrustful if not openly hostile to the U.S.-led coalition for failing to target the regime, which they see as a greater threat than ISIS. If the U.S. were to directly go after ISIS elements on the offensive against the regime, it would indicate to the already suspicious rebels that the U.S. is aiding the regime, whether directly or indirectly, and thus not a trustworthy partner. ISIS thus is exploiting these concerns by increasing its operations against the regime.
In recent weeks, ISIS has increased its attacks on the Syrian Regime in the central Syrian Desert. At the end of October, ISIS launched an offensive against the Assad Regime to seize and secure oil fields near Mount Sha’er, eastern Homs Province. Within days, ISIS fighters took over a number of oil fields, routed government troops, and besieged the Tiyas Airbase and the T4 petrol pumping station. ISIS forces also clashed with regime soldiers near the town of Sukhna, northeast of the Sha’er fields. These locations fall on the strategic road connecting Deir Ezzor City, the last remaining regime holdout along the Euphrates River in the East, to the primary government power centers in the West. Should the road fall to ISIS, regime forces in Deir Ezzor would be effectively cut off from resupply and reinforcement.
In order to blunt the group’s forward progress, the Syrian army diverted badly needed troops and weapons from operations against rebels in the west to reinforce the supply lines through the center of the country. The government even sent the indispensable Colonel Suhail “the Tiger” Hassan, a highly successful regime commander fresh off of a successful campaign against rebels in the Hama Province. The diversion of troops indicates that the ISIS offensive spooked the regime enough to divert significant resources from other areas of the country for fear of losing its last road to the East.
Thus far, ISIS forces pressuring the regime have not been targeted by U.S. airstrikes. Due to the political liabilities of assisting the regime even indirectly, these airstrikes are not likely. This makes regime forces a more attractive target for ISIS. Whereas on other fronts ISIS has suffered setbacks, the eastern Homs Province represents an opportunity for it to continue forward momentum. If it secures the strategic supply line, ISIS will set the stage for a complete takeover of the regime’s last remaining stronghold in Deir Ezzor, and with it, the entire province.
As the regime diverts key troops to defend positions in the central Syrian Desert, its advances elsewhere stall. Despite the potential for ISIS gains, the political fallout for assisting the regime would doom any future role the coalition sees for itself in the country. Therefore, it is necessary for it to remain uninvolved with the ongoing clashes between ISIS and the regime in Deir Ezzor, focusing instead on assisting pro-western rebels and destroying ISIS targets in other parts of Syria and in Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham will continue to pursue the path of least resistance as it is pressured in other areas and will maintain its push against the Assad regime in eastern Homs Province.
Kevin Truitte is a Intelligence Research Fellow with Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.