IS frontlines are collapsing. The group, which once governed a “caliphate” stretching from the suburbs of Aleppo to the suburbs of Baghdad to the suburbs of Damascus, has now had its primary area of operations reduced to a lightly populated stretch of Syria’s Deir al-Zour Governorate and Iraq’s Anbar Province.
Each day on the Syrian side, ground is lost to both Syrian government forces and the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), an American-backed coalition built around the YPG, which itself originated as the armed wing of the PYD, Syria’s PKK affiliate. Over the years, the SDF has absorbed small FSA-brand rebel groups and tribal militias, and now has a significant Arab component.
Deir al-Zour’s vast energy resources, noted on the map above, are now up for grabs. The expansive al-Omar Oil Fields, located in the triangle between the Iraqi border, the Euphrates, and the Khabur represent the greatest prize. While rumors about the Euphrates being a pre-determined demarcation line between the SDF and government forces have been swirling, it seems that Syria and its Russian sponsor have other plans; Russian pontoon bridges were spotted en route to Deir al-Zour. The government would have no reason to have accepted such an agreement, as it would’ve placed the most valuable oil fields under SDF control.
The SDF, however, seems intent on capturing the oil fields. Several figures on the SDF side have demanded that government forces not cross the Euphrates. These include British Major General Rupert Jones, a deputy commander of the Coalition and Abu Khawla, the commander of the SDF’s Deir al-Zour Military Council. These warnings are not likely to be heeded. It is highly probable that over the next few weeks, government forces will cross the river and attempt to capture some of these oil fields. Short of airstrikes, which are highly unlikely, there is nothing the Coalition or the SDF can do to prevent government forces from crossing the Euphrates.
On 9 September, the SDF launched an offensive named “al-Jazira Tempest“. The offensive seems to be aimed at preemptively blocking a crossing of the Euphrates by government forces. The SDF managed to reach the bank of the Euphrates on 15 September. The next day, a one-off Russian airstrike against the SDF was reported. This strike was probably intended as a warning against SDF attempts to block a government river crossing.
Currently, government forces have not crossed the river, but they do control the river bank villages of al-Jafra and al-Marya’iya, which sit across from IS-controlled villages. This area is where the crossing will probably take place. Once government forces manage to cross the river, a race between them and the SDF to capture the al-Omar oil fields will begin. Some rumors allege that government forces will soon begin a second offensive aimed at al-Bukamal (likely in conjunction with Iraqi forces, who are currently advancing in al-Anbar). If government forces were able to successfully capture al-Bukamal, it would give them an additional advantage, as they would be able to attack the al-Omar Oil Fields from the south as well as the west.
A full-size version of the attached map, which was created using data from Google Maps, can be found here.