Losing territory in northern Syria and north-west Iraq, and with assaults looming on the Islamic State’s city strongholds of Raqqa and Mosul, the terror group may be left next year with control just of the eastern Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. But defeating the jihadists there may prove even more difficult than overcoming them in Raqqa and Mosul, activists say.
Islamic State (IS) has the backing of most local Arabs, according to some political activists, despite the jihadists’ harsh rule and regular mass executions of those suspected of being dissidents. Activist Eyad Kharaba says local Arabs fear what might happen to them at the hands of a Kurdish-led liberation force.
And IS is cleverly fanning those fears.
“Daesh is making people afraid of the Kurds, warning them what would happen, if the Kurds come,” Kharaba, a medical doctor and father of three, says, using the Arab acronym for the terror group. “They tell them the Kurds will punish them and force them out of their homes and villages,” he adds.
Kurdish actions north of Deir Ezzor in the province of al-Hasakeh have helped feed Arab fears. Human rights groups have accused the Kurdish People’s Protection Units, or YPG, of carrying out forced displacement of Arabs and Turkmen and mass house demolitions of villages in territory they have captured from the jihadists.
Last year, Amnesty International published a report detailing the villages that have been razed by the YPG in retaliation either for perceived sympathies with the jihadist group or as punishment for past grievances and old land disputes. The rights group alleged the YPG «appears to be trampling all over the rights of civilians who are caught in the middle.”
Kurdish authorities denied the claim, saying displacements would only be temporary and were necessary on military grounds.
The YPG is one of the few armed groups in the multilayered Syrian civil war trusted by the U.S.-led coalition to battle IS extremists, but their involvement has angered anti-Assad, mainly Arab rebel militias as well as Turkey. Ankara says the Kurds are planning to establish an independent state.
Deir Ezzor has been controlled by IS since mid-2014. Small pockets of the city that bears the same name as the province have remained in the hands of Syrian government forces, but they have been besieged and unable to break the jihadists’ chokehold.
IS militants have moved closer to the strategic military airport on the outskirts of the provincial capital in the past few days. On Wednesday they captured the last outposts held by the Syrian army in the Thardeh Mountains, leaving them within striking distance of the air base’s western perimeter.
IS is adept at manipulating the locals and the powerful tribes in the province using a carrot and stick strategy. “IS has deepened relationships with tribal leaders,” says Kharaba, who had to flee Deir Ezzor because of jihadist threats. He now works in southern Turkey for an NGO.
Kharaba says, “There is a big inflation in prices and IS gives food and other essential supplies to people who swear allegiance to them. And they have tried to improve water and electricity supplies. They have boosted the power of second-rank tribal leaders; most of their chiefs are in Turkey or Damascus. They seduce them by giving them authority, money, and a share in the oil.”
IS fighters control most of the oil fields in Deir Ezzor and oil generates a major source of their revenue. U.S.-led coalition airstrikes have targeted oil facilities in the province.
But IS is brutal with those who defy them, punishing severely enemies or suspected opponents.
Earlier this year the underground activist network “Deir Ezzor is Being Slaughtered Silently” said it had discovered the whereabouts of 36 mass graves in the oil-rich province bordering Iraq, thought to be the grisly work mainly of the extremists. Last month, IS executed 19 people during the religious holiday Eid al-Adha. “Some of the relatives sought revenge and appealed to some of the tribes to help, but they got no response,” says Kharaba.
Prompted by some hit-and-run assassinations of IS emirs by a resistance group, and apparently worried about rising defections from IS ranks, the terror group’s leaders dispatched three security detachments of trusted militants from the Iraqi city of Mosul to oversee executions of suspected opponents and to launch a crackdown.
Desertions are now just a trickle. “I can’t say we are seeing large-scale defections,” says Kharaba.
Syrian army reinforcements arrived Tuesday in Deir Ezzor, pro-Assad regime news-sites reported, in preparation for a concerted IS assault on the provincial capital’s military air base. They are thought to be the first reinforcements dispatched to the province since U.S. airstrikes mistakenly bombed Syrian regime positions last month.