Since 2 November, a large number of IS fighters and civilians have been besieged on Kati Island (Hawijat Kati), a river island located between government-controlled Deir al-Zour city and the SDF-controlled village of al-Husayniyah. The people fled to the island during the capture of Deir al-Zour by government forces at the start of November. They are now asking for the SDF to launch an operation to bring them over the river to SDF territory.
The current crisis is strikingly similar to the Wadi al-Adhib crisis of August-October, during which thousands of anti-government civilians from the eastern countryside of Hama became besieged in a shrinking IS pocket and negotiated passages to rebel-controlled Greater Idlib.
The Euphrates Post has estimated the number of besieged at 143 (after 27 surrendered to the government) while other sources have reported numbers up to 300. Earlier, exaggerated reports had placed the number as high as 700.
On 8 November, it was reported that government forces had constructed a bridge across the Euphrates from Deir al-Zour city to Kati Island.
Today (10 November), shelling of the island by government forces increased, and rumors began spreading that a storming of the island was imminent. The increased urgency has led activists to start a social media hashtag campaign – “#HawijjahLast100mSOS” – asking for an SDF rescue mission (the “100m” refers to the distance between Kati Island and SDF territory). The campaign has been covered by popular Arabic-language media outlets, including al-Jazeera.
A selection of graphics taken from social media during the 10 November campaign:
The SDF reaction to the campaigns has been mixed.
On 3 November, the SDF agreed to evacuate the besieged, but the deal later fell through. The reasons for this are disputed. Pro-rebel SOHR alleged that the evacuation didn’t happen because of threats made by the government and Russians, while DeirEzzor24 claimed there was a disagreement between IS fighters who wanted to be evacuated to Wilayat al-Furat and the SDF who demanded the unconditional surrender of all IS fighters.
Following the 10 November hashtag campaign, SDF spokesman Mustafa Bali issued a statement indicating a desire to evacuate the besieged, but blaming the SDF’s inaction on the Syrian government. Likewise, SOHR continues to allege (1,2) that a potential evacuation deal is being held up by the government and Russia.
It is possible, however, that these claims are untrue and are cover for the SDF not wanting to evacuate the besieged. After all, it is only natural that the SDF would be wary of taking in IS fighters and civilians who are likely IS-sympathetic, particularly after last month’s debacle northeast of Hama. The “other side” of the story is not known, as neither the Syrian government nor Russia has commented on the situation. In fact, some pro-government sources falsely claimed on 4 November that the island had been captured.
A full-size version of the above map, which was created using Google Maps, can be found here.