Map: The Situation Near Kati Island

Kati Island Map-Final.png

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.

kati bridge
The bridge in question. Source: Ivan Sidorenko

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:

 

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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.

 

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Map: IS Gains Against Government Forces on 28-29 September

29 Sep - Eastern Syria Map.png

On 28 September 2017, IS forces in eastern Syria launched the “Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani offensive“. The offensive is aimed broadly at government forces throughout the governorates of Deir al-Zour and Homs. The locations of IS attacks have been geographically disparate and its not clear that there is a set objective other than capturing as many government positions as possible.

Two days in, the offensive has become the most successful offensive operation launched by IS since their recapture of Tadmur in December 2016.

The offensive began on 28 September with a broad attack from the east on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway. IS captured the small villages of Kabajib and al-Shoula, near Deir al-Zour city. A separate group of IS fighters captured the two small hamlets of Albu Amr and al-Jabaylia, located several kilometers to the southeast of the Deir al-Zour Airbase. IS media, in what is almost certainly a greatly exaggerated claim, reported the death of 65 Syrian and Russian soldiers, the destruction of four tanks, and the capture of two Russian soldiers during these clashes. The Russians denied the claim of captured Russian soldiers.

Further south, IS advanced near al-Sukhna and claimed the capture of Jabal Tantur, which overlooks the town from the west. IS media claimed as many as 100 Syrian soldiers were killed near al-Sukhna.

IS opened 29 September with an assault on the T-3 pumping station, which is located to the south of al-Sukhna. IS briefly captured the station, but was later pushed back by government forces. IS claimed to have killed 34 government soldiers during the encounter. The only point in the T-3 area to be successfully secured by IS was the al-Hayl gas field.

The largest advance came to the east of al-Sukhna. While an attack on the eastern perimeter of the city was repelled, IS successfully captured a large area located 30 kilometers to the northeast of al-Sukhna. The points captured include the al-Baghala junction, the village of al-Qalia, and the Umayyad castle known as Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi. One unverifiable source claimed IS also captured the Najib gas field. In spite of several spurious social media reports to the contrary, IS hasn’t yet managed to capture the town of al-Sukhna itself. However, IS is reported to control critical positions on both sides of the town. If IS continues to press forward and a government counteroffensive does not materialize, the town may fall sometime over the next few days.

Other, smaller attacks took place across Deir al-Zour and Homs on the 29th. One occurred near the village of Humayma, a government-held hamlet located 100 kilometers southeast of al-Sukhna on the road to T-2 pumping station. Another reportedly occurred within the city of Deir al-Zour itself. No territorial changes are known to have come of any of these smaller attacks.

The most surprising attack, though, came in al-Qaryatayn. al-Qaryatayn was captured by government forces most recently in April 2016. It is located 70 kilometers from the nearest IS-held villages and 150 kilometers from IS’ primary zone of operations. An IS sleeper cell, reportedly based in the village of Hawarin, managed to capture the town due to an absence of soldiers. The stunning victory was short-lived, though, as government forces immediately entered the town and routed IS.

The attack on al-Qaryatayn is one of three behind-the-lines IS attacks during the past week in areas thought to be secure. Previously:

  • On 26 September, IS raided eastern districts of Raqqa thought to be fully secure. At least 28 SDF were killed.
  • On 27 September, IS forces managed to infiltrate the city of Ramadi, Iraq and were able to capture and hold several districts in the southwestern outskirts of the city before withdrawing.

This string of infiltration attacks is a signal that IS leaders have come to terms with the fact that their “caliphate” will soon cease to exist, and, in accordance, are developing guerilla strategies in preparation for the day after the last IS-held settlement falls.

In addition to the reports of IS gains, reports of successful government counteroffensives have popped up on social media; however, the majority of claims are yet unconfirmed. While many sources (1, 2, 3, 4) reported that government forces recaptured lost positions on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway, others denied such claims. The only thing that is confirmed is that government forces recaptured the al-Shoula oil fields. There is currently no hard evidence that any other points on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway have been recaptured, and it is probable that IS still controls the road along with the villages of Kabajib and al-Shoula. Previous claims (made on the 28th) of al-Shoula’s recapture turned out to be false; it would not at all be surprising if the current claims are false as well.

Another advance was reported near the Deir al-Zour Airbase, where IS captured the villages of Albu Amr and al-Jabayliya on the 28th. One report indicated the Tiger Forces had “fire control” over Albu Amr while another report stated that the Army (without specifying a particular unit) had captured half of said village. If the Tigers are indeed advancing in that area, this, combined with a statement made by Ahmed Abdullah al-Omar, indicates that the Tigers’ next advance will likely be along the west bank of the Euphrates toward the IS capital of al-Mayadin.

Although government forces will inevitably recapture the lost areas like they did Tadmur, the last two days have shown that IS can still be effective and resilient on the battlefield. The attack on al-Qaryatayn in particular shows what kind of attacks may occur in the future once IS becomes a guerilla-only force.

A full-size version of the above map, which was made using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: the map is only a rough estimate of control as definitive reports have been scarce and the status of many of the hills and hamlets that dot the desert landscape is not known.

Map: Oil and Gas Fields of Eastern Syria

Eastern Syria Oil and Gas Map Final

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.