October 19, 2017
Newly discovered archaeological finds indicate that the history of the city of Deir al-Zor dates back to about 10,000 BC and that it has been inhabited since the 9th century BC.
Civilizations followed one after another in the city, which has witnessed the days of the Assyrians, the Acadians, the Romans and others. Islamic rule passed through this city, before spreading to the rest of Syria and then later to the Ottoman Empire. After the Anglo-French Sykes-Picot agreements in 1916, which redistributed Arab land formerly under Ottoman rule between the two powers, Deir al-Zor became a marginalized city on the edge of Syria. Most of its economy depends on agriculture and livestock, because of its proximity to the Euphrates River.
Deir al-Zor is considered one of the most important cotton producing cities in Syria, which was ranked second in the world in production before 2011. It is also famous for the cultivation of wheat, barley, sugar beet, fruit trees, and vegetables, and is one of the most important livestock producing cities with cattle and sheep in addition to fish from the Euphrates River.
Deir al-Zor Governorate is the second largest Syrian province, covering an area of 33,000 square kilometers. It has strategic importance, making it one of the most important cities in Syria because of the oil and gas fields discovered there in the 1980s. These fields are mainly located on the northeastern side of the Euphrates River, in the region which is locally called the "island" (al-Jazeera in Arabic). In addition, there are pumping and assembly stations of oil coming from Hasakeh and Raqqa Governorates.
Although Deir al-Zor was the richest of the Syrian provinces during the rule of Hafez al-Assad, it became more marginalized and impoverished. Despite the high rate of education, the regime deliberately brought in employees from other provinces to manage the oil sector, rather than educate and recruit from the area’s residents, or develop an industrial base accompanying the production and refining of oil, forcing many of its youth to migrate outside the country in search of sources to make a decent living. In the 1980s, the people of Deir al-Zor suffered on a large-scale from arrests and were killed due to their perceived affiliation to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Iraqi Ba’ath party and communist, nationalist and Arabic movements which were anti-regime.
In 2011, the province joined the peaceful civilian movement of the Syrian revolution and its streets witnessed demonstrations exceeding 250,000 people. As the Syrian revolution became more militarized, many of its residents became members of the Free Syrian Army; thousands of its inhabitants were arrested and forcibly disappeared in the regime's prisons; large parts of the city and its countryside were destroyed and thousands were killed by the regime's air force.
With the emergence of ISIS and its expansion and control over the majority of the province as well as their efforts to control the oil of the region, the main nerve of Deir al-Zor`s economy, the international alliance for the “war against terrorism” began to target the area in order to eliminate ISIS, after taking control of Raqqa.
Deir al-Zor is currently witnessing an intensity in fighting that has not been seen in other cities since Aleppo. The difference is that the whole world is bombing it, including the Syrian regime and its Russian ally; the international coalition; and local and foreign militias who are providing support from the ground.
Whatever the identity of the final victor, the ultimate loser in this war are the Syrian civilians who have been uprooted from their land and seen the foundations of their lives destroyed. In Deir al-Zor today you will find only empty cities and villages, and hundreds of hectares of arid land that were once green fields.
In this issue, Suwar Magazine opens and explores the myriad issues facing the province of Deir al-Zor, its strategic importance, the nature of the conflict there and the intertwined forces, as well as studies the situation of its IDPs and the human rights violations against them.
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The Russian-American Conflict in Deir al-Zor:
Chaos of a Frantic Race
October 19, 2017
In the last few weeks, the international conflict in Deir al-Zor has reached a dangerous new stage. The race to control the city and expel ISIS has intensified, with many international parties participating.
The US-Russian understanding of the situation in Syria appears to be very fragile in regards to Deir al-Zor. The conflict between the two superpowers is growing to be as intense as it was during the days of the Cold War.
American planning rush
In the last three months, the United States has made many mistakes in Deir al-Zor. At first, the U.S. supported, through the Jordanian government, Free Syrian Army factions such as the Lions of the East Army and the Martyr Ahmad al-'Abdu forces in the Syrian Badia region. This support allowed the introduction of some Arab factions into the battles for control of the province. However, as time went on, the U.S. withdrew its support from these factions, to such an extent that it threatened to bomb them if they continued to advance and did not withdraw to the Syrian-Jordanian border.
Throughout this period, the Americans continued to provide direct support to Syria’s Democratic Forces (DSF), a majority Kurdish force, with aerial coverage through the international coalition air force. This raises significant questions about America's motivations in supporting these forces in an area where there is no Kurdish population over a force with a significant portion of its members from the province.
"The main objective of the American plan is to increase the fragmentation of Syrian society and to feed the Arab Kurdish conflict, which contributes to striking the unity of the country, facilitating control over it, and implementing any new plan imposed on it," said activist Imran al-Diri to Suwar Magazine.
On the other hand, the Syrian regime has begun to realize its aspirations of engaging Russia as a partner in the fight against ISIS. Those aspirations have been around for a long time, despite the resistance of the U.S. and western media.
The Iranian dream and the evacuation of Deir al-Zor
Iran is engaging in a substantial effort to shape the future of eastern Syria, establishing the region as a starting point for the establishment of military bases. From these it can impose its influence on parts of the Iraqi border and cut off links with the Sunni-majority region along the Iraq-Syria border. If Iran were able to achieve this strategic position, it would be able to weaken the strong ties between the area’s populations. It would also allow the Popular Mobilization Force (PMF) and its allies to enter Syria, granting Iran the chance to achieve its historic goal of establishing a path to the Mediterranean.
However, the bombing by U.S. forces on Iranian forces heading to Deir al-Zor at the Tanf border crossing between Syria, Jordan, and Iraq was a clear message to Iran that the United States would not allow them to obtain such influence over the Syrian-Iraqi border.
This is how the race between the Russians and the Americans in Deir El-Zor looks; it is a last minute competition, with each side vying to see who can gain greater geographic influence and win the most political points, giving them an edge in negotiating the terms that will end the war in Syria.
Occurring parallel to these events, analysts believe there have been fierce attacks on civilians in eastern Syria with the aim of evacuating the region in order to control its oil resources more easily. Oil is the main resource aiding the efforts of any group supported by Russia or the U.S., reducing the heavy cost burden they levy on their allies. Some of these forces include Syria's Democratic Forces on the American side, and the regime and its militias on the Russian side.
"The biggest loser is the Syrians, Arabs, and Kurds or whatever their affiliation is. The destruction of Deir al-Zor and its wealth and the displacement of its people is a loss for all of Syria and for any true Syrian national project," activist Suhaib al-Jaber told Suwar Magazine.
Does media pressure succeed?
At the end of last September, the Russian government announced the death of the head of a group of Russian military advisers in Syria, Field Marshal Valery Assabov. Assabov was killed with mortar shells fired by ISIS on one of the command centers of the Syrian regime forces.
Russian sources said that the field marshal was killed in an intelligence operation, by unknowingly giving his location and the timing of his presence at the headquarters to someone who had a relationship with ISIS fighters.
The incident provoked widespread public debate in Russia, prompting many to wonder about the reasons for, and feasibility of, the Russian presence in Syria, which is coming at a high cost. Amid the misinformation spread by the Russian government are claims that the military participation is limited to the air force, a claim which has long been made, since the USSR war in Afghanistan. The facts, however, indicate that there is a large Russian ground force. Many officers have been killed during the fighting, and a number of journalists accompanying them have been injured.
Many doubt that public pressure could sway the Russian government into discontinuing its efforts in Syria.
"Russia does not resemble Western countries where civil society usually succeeds in pressing governments to withdraw from wars, like the wars of Vietnam and Iraq," said Abu Ibrahim, a defected colonel, who has previously lived in Russia.
Abu Ibrahim continued, saying, "Russia is a state controlled by the intelligence services, and behind it the mafias, and therefore it can suppress any voice that may rise in the face of the interests of these bodies. Proof of what I say is that Russia has announced the death of about 40 officers of different military ranks, whereas the number is hundreds, according to western and Syrian sources and that those who were killed were from the elite Russian forces."
Others believe that the Syrian opposition parties should reveal the real figures of the Russian military who were killed. The belief is that if the deaths are documented and submitted to Russian public opinion, with time it could push popular opinion against the Russian military intervention. Proponents of this cite that recent polls indicate a low desire on the part of the Russian people to participate in military operations in Syria. The most recent poll was conducted by Levada Center and showed that about 30 percent of those polled support the continuation of military intervention, while 49 percent oppose it.
In the midst of this convoluted picture, Deir al-Zor appears to be held hostage to the whims of the larger forces at work. While this is all ongoing, the political and military realities are that international parties have come to control all of the Syrian participants, both in the regime and in the opposition.
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Deir al-Zor Residents:
From the Horrors of Shelling to the Hell of Displacement
George K. Maiala
October 19, 2017
For over two months, Deir al-Zor has been subject to a systematic military campaign under the pretext of eliminating ISIS. The regime’s military forces and the shabiha militias from Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran have participated together under the cover of a joint Russian-Syrian air force. The Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), who are supported by the US-led Coalition, have also participated.
In September, the NGO Justice for Life(1) recorded over 400 airstrikes by the regime's air force and its Russian ally, and more than 100 airstrikes by the US-led coalition air force, mostly targeting civilian communities. The NGO documented that 69 civilians were killed and hundreds were wounded, including women and children.
The journey of misery
The tragic reality in the country's rural areas has led tens of thousands to flee their homes to areas under SDF control, forcing them to embark on a journey as difficult as life under shelling.
The journey of displacement from the rural areas of Deir al-Zor, including Mayadeen, Abu Kamal and Muhsin, begins with smugglers. People pay large amounts of money to escape without crossing ISIS-held territory, until they reach the eastern bank of the Euphrates River. They cross the river by boats which are fashioned from damaged iron salvaged from the bridges connecting the two banks of the river, destroyed by airstrikes.
Even in their journey across the river, civilians cannot escape the regime’s air force, as they target these waters with air raids on a daily basis. Entire families have been killed while attempting to cross, their blood mixing with the water of the nearby river.
After reaching the other side, the next dangerous stage of the journey begins; walking on bumpy roads across landmines left by ISIS. Smugglers often leave internally displaced people (IDPs) 5-8 kilometres away from the first SDF checkpoint, forcing them walk this distance on foot. Upon arrival at the checkpoint, the security guards begin their random inspections, yet they have no equipment to detect weapons and explosives.
Then, SDF cars arrive to move the IDPs to another location. They are moved to the Shadada area, which is in Hasakah province, about 70 kilometres from the first checkpoint. After reaching Al-Sadd refugee camp in the south of Hasakah, SDF members ask the IDPs to pay the driver 28,000 Syrian Pounds, despite promising that the transportation will be free.When the IDPs first arrive to the camp, they have to stand in long queues to register their names and hand over their identity papers to the administration.
Abu Khaled, 43 years old from Al-Muhsin, said, "What is the reason to hand over all of our identity papers? If there are people among us affiliated with ISIS, they already have their names and can pursue them without taking our personal papers. The camp is like a detention centre - once you are in you cannot leave because all of your official documents are in their possession."
The IDPs are then given a tent, and must wait again in long queues to receive mattresses, blankets and a simple food basket, all organized by the Asayish (local police) forces of the SDF.
"As we stood in those queues, we were subjected to various kinds of insults and swear words. Sometimes we were beaten by Kalashnikovs and kicked with feet," says Mustafa al-Zu'bi, a former camp resident.
The camp is managed directly by the officers and members of the SDF administration and its security services. The United Nations (UN), the Syrian Arab Red Crescent, the Norwegian Refugee Council and other international organizations provide necessities such as tents, mattresses, blankets and food, delivered by land or airlift to Qamishli Airport, under the supervision of the regime forces and Russian officers.
There are medical staff from the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF/Doctors Without Borders) in the camp, who work daily until 4:00 pm. After that time, there are no emergency teams and it is prohibited to leave the camp legally in emergency cases. If there is an emergency, residents are forced to pay bribes to the guards, or escape the camp illegally in order to go to nearby hospitals.
There is a lack of basic health in the camp; there are no bathrooms, limited drinking water, very poor sanitation, and no garbage disposal.
"Those who want to go to restrooms have to walk about 3 kilometres, otherwise they have to use the open land as toilets. The camp administration provides some water, but does not meet the daily needs of even 10 per cent of the camp. In total, there are more than 20,000 people living in over 4,000 tents. Those who want to take a shower must do so in their own tent or in the lake close to the area, which resembles a polluted swamp,” Mustafa al-Zu'bi told Suwar Magazine.
Abu Najim said, "The presence or absence of medical staff makes no difference. There is no adequate care provided, there is no radiology (X-ray) equipment or modern tools. If somebody is sick inside the camp, they are more likely to die than find a hospital or a doctor." "A few days ago,” continued Abu Najim, “a baby was stung on his foot by a scorpion and he found no one to help him. One of his relatives used a sharp object to open the sting to remove the poison and save his life, leaving him with a scar that remained bleeding until the baby died”.
Om Mohammed (the mother of Mohammed), from the area of Mayadeen, said, "As a result of the lack of cleanliness in the camp, lice spread widely, as well as scabies and gastrointestinal diseases and other sicknesses from the cold. There have been several attempted suicides among women". She added, “If you need medicine for a headache, you have to secretly ask the camp administrators. In the pharmacy it costs 100 Syrian Pounds, whereas they will take 1,000 Pounds from us and we won’t get the medicine for two days."
Exit from the camp
Those who want to leave the camp have three options. Firstly, by registering for a health exit request in order to go to hospitals. In most cases, it is not approved without strong justification. Secondly, by having a sponsor with the same last name and address, who processes the transaction with the SDF authorities. The sponsor must pay 50-100,000 Syrian Pounds as a bribe. Thirdly, and the option most often used, is through bribing somebody inside the camp who is under the supervision of the camp’s leadership.
Mustafa al-Zu'bi told Suwar Magazine, "After paying 200,000 Syrian Pounds, I left the camp by a military vehicle belonging to the SDF. We were transferred to a house in Ajaja village. There is coordination between the smugglers and the owners of the houses we are transferred to. One night’s rent costs 25,000 Syrian Pounds."
"To get your personal papers before leaving the camp, you have to pay $100 US Dollars to one of the members of the SDF in the camp."
After that, IDPs move to Raqqa province through the camps of Ain Al-Eissa, Manbj and Bab. Some of them settle down in areas under the control of the Euphrates Shield Forces.
Those wishing to go to Turkey illegally travel to the Azaz area, where they then have to pass through the Kurdish self-administration checkpoints, each of which imposes a toll for their passage. They reach the villages and towns of Idlib, where they search again for smugglers to take them to Turkey.
The tragedy of children
Children fleeing from ISIS controlled areas suffer from multiple psychological traumas. This is a result of witnessing heavy shelling by the US-led coalition, which is more violent than the bombing from the regime because of its high density and use of modern weapons.
"The most common psychological illnesses include excessive violence, phobias, low concentration, and trauma resulting from the loss of a parent," says Dima, a teacher in Aleppo's northern countryside.
She adds, "The children who come from ISIS controlled areas show more violent reactions than others, as a result of what they saw. This is more commonly found in boys rather than girls because ISIS tries to spread the culture of jihad among the boys in the community, unlike the girls who they force to stay at home."
"This is reflected in the drawings of children. They draw blood, and the planes that used to target them. Some of them draw the flags of America, France and Germany on airplanes, which shows their concern about the countries that bomb their areas. However, many people are ignorant of the names of the countries involved in the international coalition against ISIS. The children try to show their strength and physical skills, and they use wooden weapons like swords and knives while playing, which resemble what was used by ISIS in their sentences against civilians. The girls appear terrified when they hear the shooting and shelling, and try to prove themselves through home games and study, and through their behaviour and appearance."
In conjunction with the current events, activists have launched a media campaign called Holocaust Deir al-Zor, which sheds light on the massacres witnessed by the city at the hands of the conflict.
Human rights organizations sent an urgent message to the Secretary-General of the UN, Antonio Gutiérrez, demanding the need to put pressure on parties involved in the conflict in order to prevent atrocities against civilians.
(1): JFL is a civil society organisation based in Deir al-Zor that aims to strengthen and promote the culture of human rights in Syria.