Sunday, 7 December 2014

Battlefront Syria: Deir ez-Zor

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

Deir ez-Zor is perhaps Syria's most underreported city; while originally largely under Free Syrian Army control after the start of the civil war, the city was taken over by the Islamic State in early July, which subsequently faced a little-reported Republican Guard offensive aimed at encircling the city. In early December, the Islamic State made a push in the direction of Deir ez-Zor's airbase, a vital lifeline to the city.

Deir ez-Zor is perhaps best known for its oilfields, and previously much of the fighting around the city involved fighting for control over these strategically important objectives. As the oilfields used to provide much of the fuel for the Syrian Arab Army, the Republican Guard, the National Defence Force and Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Falcons), their takeover about a year ago was a serious blow to all forces loyal to Assad and endangered the fuel supply badly needed to mount new offensives. While Russian contractors belonging to the Slavonic Corps were intially sent to protect these oilfields, they did not even manage to reach Deir ez-Zor.

The dwindling fuel supplies already forced the widespread introduction of tank trailers, as there simply isn't enough fuel for the tanks to drive to their deployment zone by themself. A situation that isn't going to improve unless the oilfields around Deir ez-Zor are recaptured.

A number of reasons explain why there's still a large Syrian military presence in Deir ez-Zor. Firstly, Deir ez-Zor was reinforced by elements of the Republican Guard's 104th Brigade led by Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine in early 2014. Secondly, the airbase is still in government hands; it has proven vital to quickly resupply the city and fighter-bombers stationed there also provide much of the air support to forces in and around the city. Thirdly, the Damascus - Palmyra - Deir ez-Zor highway remains under government control. This highway is used to ferry reinforcements and supplies to the city. Lastly, the high ground around the city remains in the hands of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA). The SyAA positioned numerous howitzers, field guns and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) here, which can fire at any target within the city and also cover the approaches to the airbase.

The Republican Guard's 104th Brigade was intially rushed to Aleppo to launch a new series of offensives in the hope of regaining some of the lost ground in and around Aleppo, but saw itself transferred to Deir ez-Zor in early 2014 to reinforce the remainder of the Syrian Arab Army garrison. It is unknown if the entire 104th or only a part of it was transferred to Deir ez-Zor. As the amount of Republican Guard fighters in Deir ez-Zor remains low, the latter seems more likely. The contingent currently deployed in Deir ez-Zor is led by Issam Zahreddine, a Druze and undoubtedly the most popular general found within Syria. The reason for his popularity is that he personally leads his soldiers into battle, can always be found on the frontline and shares the same priviliges as his soldiers, even if that means sitting in a BMP-1 driving towards the frontline.

The 104th is sometimes classified as the 104th Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard, and while a few soldiers in the brigade were indeed trained as what one would call paratroopers, and others were learned how to deploy from low-flying helicopters, the 104th is believed to have been "airborne" only in name, displaying the characteristics of a mechanised brigade instead. The fact that Syrian military doctrine does not envisage  airborne operations supports this theory.

Nonetheless, the contingent deployed to Deir ez-Zor only managed to acquire a limited amount of older T-72 Urals, T-72M1s, BMP-1s and some ZSU-23s from other units. A couple of Falaq-2 launchers are also operated. The 104th using T-72s in Deir ez-Zor marked the first deployment of this type in the city, as the 137th Mechanized Brigade had only been operating T-55s.

During the initial operations in Damascus, the 104th operated several TURMS-T equipped T-72s (Syria's most modern tanks) but all appear to have been transferred to another unit within the Republican Guard. While the brigade thus lacks large amounts of modern tanks, it did receive a sizeable batch of Sayyad-2 anti-materiel sniper rifles and AK-74Ms, Syria's most modern assault rifle.

Unsurprisingly, the 104th Brigade contingent boosts a significant amount of Druze fighters. Issam Zahreddine's bodyguard unit is also believed to consist mainly of Druzes. The need for bodyguards is a direct result of his popularity in Syria and more importantly, the $200,000 bounty on Zahreddine's head.

The 104th came to Deir ez-Zor with two important tasks: Securing the airbase by pushing back the fighters of the Islamic State and encircling them within the city centre so a new offensive on the oilfields could be initiated. The first goal was accomplished quite quickly after the 104th arrived. After Tabqa fell, Issam Zahreddine remarked: ''Deir ez-Zor airbase is not Tabqa airbase. We will bury IS here.''

Ground forces already operating in Deir ez-Zor were limited to 137th Mechanized Brigade, which already lost most of its fighting power and tanks during two years of heavy fighting, yet remained in control of parts of the city and the strategic hills. Along with NDF troops, made up of civilians, reservists and a few regular soldiers they were already busy with defending the remaining parts of the city and airbase, and did not have the power to launch an offensive themselves.

The 104th contingent deployed to Deir ez-Zor was also quite small, and was forced to carefully balance its troops in order to be able to fend off any assauls on its flanks during its own offensives. So while much of the 104th was mostly on the offensive, a part was distributed along the city permiter to reinforce the SyAA and NDF soldiers already present here. The battles fought within the city centre were extremely fierce. Local offensives usually saw both sides fighting for housing blocks, during which neither sides could really advance. The Islamic State also made extensive use of tunnels, some of which were ultimately destroyed. The SyAA and NDF could count on artillery support from the nearby hills, which subsequently destroyed most of the city and due to the close proximity of both sides, did also occasionally result in SyAA casualties.[1] Footage of the fighting inside Deir ez-Zor can be seen here.

The underreported offensive was aimed at cutting off the city centre from Islamic State-held territory at the opposite side of the river. The 104th was split into two, with both parts attacking from a different direction.

As seen in the map, one part attacked from Al Filat while the other part crossed the river to Saqr (Saqer) Island. Contrary to the fighting in the city, the battle for Saqr Island was fought between thick layers of trees, bushes and crops. Footage from the Battle of Saqr Island in chronological order can be seen here and here.

During his operations, Issam Zahreddine used tactics the SyAA and NDF could only dream off, especially in the early stages of the Syrian Civil War. T-72s moving up while followed by infantry and covered by other T-72s and ZSU-23s, the infantry clears the housing, again supported by T-72s and ZSU-23s and the process is repeated again and again. This in sharp contrast to the use of tanks in the early days of the Civil War, when they were used as battering rams charging through cities, often falling prey to RPG fire. One of the T-72M1s deployed to Deir ez-Zor can be seen below. The flag seen on the right belongs to the Druze community.

The ultimate goal of the Al Filat - Saqr Island offensive was to encircle the fighters of the Islamic State within Deir ez-Zor itself, after which the 104th could be used in a new offensive to regain the lost oilfields scattered around Deir ez-Zor. The fighting for the city would be left to the Syrian Arab Army, the National Defence Force and a new militia called the National Security.[2] Trained at the base of the 137th Mechanized Brigade, it would have consisted of people not yet fighting with the Syrian Arab Army or National Defence Force.

The downside of this offensive for the SyAA, NDF and 104th was that it exposed the weak flanks even more. As the forces were already stretched thin here, it was just a matter of time before the Islamic State would attempt to benefit from this situation.

Although some suggest the push on the airbase is a direct result of the stalemate in Kobanî, which brought the need for another victory, this could be questioned as Kweres airbase would be better suited for a quick victory. Kweres, formerly the main training base of the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), has been under siege since December 2012 and is now nothing more than a runway littered with plane wrecks and troops only capable of defending the base.

Deir ez-Zor's airbase is home to the SyAAF's 8th Squadron operating the MiG-21. Around a dozen decommissioned MiG-21s can be seen on satellite imagery, suggesting 8th Squadron received more MiG-21s from other Squadrons within Syria to stay operational. 8th Squadron also suffered several losses because of ATGM teams around the airbase, which destroyed at least two MiG-21s within their hardened aircraft shelters (HAS). This forced the SyAAF to hide most its planes behind raised sand covers.

Deir ez-Zor also sees regular deployments of Mi-8/17s, Mi-25s and even MiG-23BNs. Furthermore, the 104th can call upon the SyAAF's 819th Squadron, flying recently upgraded Su-24M2s, for precision attacks.[3] [4] These aircraft have been frequently spotted over Deir ez-Zor.

Deir ez-Zor used to house four 2K12 SAM sites for the protection of the airbase and city. While one of these was destroyed by the Free Syrian Army while retreating to regime-held territory and another inactive site was overrun by the Islamic State (one of the inoperational captured launcher units can be seen below), two still remain under regime control. Of these two, only one remains partially operational.

The Damascus - Palmyra - Deir ez-Zor highway, which was used by the 104th to reach Deir ez-Zor, also remains under government control and has proven to be of vital importance as it is the city's primary lifeline.

Holding on to this road, the strategic airbase and surrounding hills is of great importance for the SyAA, NDF and 104th in and around Deir ez-Zor. Previously gained ground might have to be abandoned to free up forces for the defence of Deir ez-Zor's airbase. The SyAA, NDF and 104th's ability to call in air support and artillery due to their control of the high ground might be just enough to ensure their presence in Deir ez-Zor is there to stay.

But as the magnitude of the Islamic State's offensive remains unknown, it is as of yet impossible to judge if they've embarked on a large scale offensive aimed at finishing the regime's presence in Deir ez-Zour once and for all, or if they're simply probing the defences of the SyAA, NDF and 104th around the airbase, hoping to gain a direct line of sight of the runway via the neigbourhoods of Jaffra and Al-Mari’iyya, making it impossible for the SyAAF to take off. It is also possible the assault is a diversion for a future offensive aimed at retaking some of the ground it lost in the recent months, thus preventing possible encirclement.

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Battlefront Syria: Kweres airbase


  1. “Damascus - Palmyra - Deir ez-Zor highway” consists of different numbered Syrian road sections.

    I’ve found the following thread at Skyscraper City forum to be of use in providing amateur photography of various Syrian motorways, roads and junctions. (They were taken during the late 2000s before the onset of the conflict.

    There’s a photo of what appears to be the Road 2 / Road 53 junction. splitting towards Palmyra / Deir ez-Zur, and towards Attanf / Baghdad.

    There’s also a photo of what appears to be the junction of roads 53, 45 and 30.

  2. Nice blog, I really like your articles. For your information though, the use of tank transporters is very common and not necessarily linked to the lack of fuel. It is instead a means to transport tanks without additional wear and tear and degradation of their tracks. It greatly reduces the necessary maintenance work on the vehicles and enhances the shelf life of the engines but mostly of the tracks. It also allows for faster deployment of the vehicles. Fuel is a very secondary consideration to these primary factors.

    1. It was only recently that tank trailers came into widespread use again, with all of the tanks driving to the operational zone before that. On top of that, the fleet of tank trailers was too small to transport the Syrian tank fleet even before the Syrian Civil War. It was always foreseen that some of the divisions would simply drive to the frontline themselves.

    2. Agreed,its far more likely that they are doing this simply to save wear and tear on the tanks themselves rather than it being a sign of any fuel shortages,after all iran can supply them with all the refined petroleum products they need for military operations anyway,if things were that bad we would be seeing a reduction in the amount and type of armor deployed rather than the use of transporters,we also dont know how many trailers the army has or what distances they are transporting the armor over so its pretty premature to draw the conclusion that the use of tank transporters somehow equals a fuel shortage

  3. Issam Zahreddine reminds me of Erwin Rommel

  4. Congratulations! It really great to read somebody how KNOW what is going on and explain it with all the details.

  5. Do you know if Syrian Army is sending any troops from other parts of the country to help the brigade of Zahreddine ?

  6. Well-wrote article, congratulations for the good work Oryx !

    I would only disagree about one point, the goal of the ISIS offensive. Even if it is for sure both a mix of strategic considerations and it, I'm quite sure, knowning how ISIS vital propaganda works, that's indeed a "direct result of the stalemate in Kobanî, which brought the need for another victory". Kweres airbase is a low target which would not be enough to divert ISIS supporters of Kobane. In addition, it is very (too) close to Aleppo where contrary to Deir ez-Zor there is a large, strong SAA and SAAF presence, which could potentially rescue their entrenched comrades and inflict heavy loses to ISIS. Deir ez-Zor being also at the middle of ISIS "caliphate", not on the edge like Kweres, help for the resupply of men or weapons (while for the SAA it's the opposite, even if Kweres/Aleppo is a bit too on the margin of the controled zone).

    Anyways ISIS failed their offensive once again (not the 1st time they try to capture the airbase/city), lost over 200 men, etc., seems the SAA was successfull countering them, with low casualties.

    1. Kweres remains an airbase, and its capture would result in every news agency saying: The islamic State managed to capture another airbase once again.

      Yet you might be right. Ending the regime's presence in and around Deir ez-Zor would be the highest stunt achievable, and would likely cause the world to look away from Kobanî.

  7. I have just recently discovered this blog via Bellingcat and since then I truely enjoy reading your posts!

    I would like to ask you a question relating to the tank tactics seen during the Battle of Saqr Island. You mentioned the totally inappropriate use of tanks when the uprising became a full scale war in the city centers. The German newspaper "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" (which is realiable and reputable) back then speculated that those naive and foolish tactics could be the result of officers not wanting the army to win those engagements. I mean, is it somehow implausible that officers of a national army are not told not to use tanks within urban warfare without any protection from infantery units.
    What do you think? What is the explanation for the use of such professional tactics we see on Saqr Island now?

    Keep up your good work and greetings from Germany

    1. Many thanks!

      The tactics used back then were a direct result of the competence, or rather the incompetence of the SAA's generals, almost all of which trained in the former Soviet Union. As you might know, they were learned to use tank tactics originally destined for the fields of Germany. These tactics did not fear better during the Russian assault on Grozny.

      The tank tactics we're seeing in use on Saqr Island came into being because of Issam Zahreddine's competence as a military commander and by trial and much error.

    2. I still find the earlier tactic odd. As an infantry officer candidate in 1968 in the US I was taught that it is a basic principle of combined arms operations that tanks must be supported by infantry.

  8. Hello Oryx,

    can you tell me what kind of rifle scope the SAA-Soldier have mounted on his AK74M? (Under 104th Logo).

    Thank you.

  9. Dear Oryx, may i ask you? Are you Arab, British or what? An ex-military expert, just a passionate of military affairs, or...

    1. Military expert, and definitely not British, French or American for that matter.

  10. Are you sure the regime controls the roads to palmyra? Ive always heard they lost control of that highway but are resupplied by the airport, any map ive ever seen has always shown the road as being cut off to them

    1. Yeah, I've seen those same maps, but I think the regime is able to resupply via the road. I don't know if 'control' is the right word, as the highway isn't being actively defended by the regime as far as I know, and ISIS can send fighters across the road. I'd say the road isn't controlled by anyone.