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Coalition-backed forces push into Syria’s Kahbur River valley

Thomas Joscelyn
9th September 2017 - FDD's Long War Journal

The Deir Ezzor Military Council announced a new US-backed offensive against the Islamic State in eastern Syria.

The US-led coalition announced today that the Syrian Arab Coalition (SAC) has begun a new offensive against the Islamic State in the Kahbur River valley. The offensive, named “Operation Jazeera Storm,” aims to dislodge the so-called caliphate from its strongholds north of the city of Deir Ezzor.

The new effort means that there are now two different coalitions trying to uproot the self-declared caliphate in eastern Syria.

Bashar al Assad’s regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has made progress in Deir Ezzor in recent weeks. Earlier this month, the Syrian regime said that its forces and allies had broken through the Islamic State’s siege of its positions in and around Deir Ezzor city. Abu Bakr al Baghdadi’s men began the siege in 2014 and their actions have contributed to the ongoing humanitarian crisis in the area.

The Assad regime, along with Iranian-sponsored militias, Hezbollah and the Russians, began an offensive toward Deir Ezzor this past summer. The regime has taken two pathways. One is from the west, where Assad’s forces have seized ground from the Sunni jihadists in Homs province. The other is from the north, where the regime has established its own foothold in parts of Raqqa province. [See FDD’s Long War Journal report, Analysis: The Syrian regime’s offensive towards Deir Ezzor.]

The SAC is pressing into Deir Ezzor mainly from the north. “The multi-ethnic SAC is a battle-tested, proven partner force in the Coalition’s fight to defeat ISIS in northern Syria,” Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) said in a statement earlier today. The operation is led by the Deir Ezzor Military Coalition, which will give the effort a local face.

“Once the Khabur River valley is cleared of ISIS, the SAC states the region will be turned over to representative bodies of local civilians who will then oversee security and governance as with Tabqa and Manbij,” CJTF-OIR stated.

CJTF-OIR’s statement was undoubtedly intended to assuage fears about Iran’s and the Assad regime’s ability to capitalize off of the US-led coalition’s gains. There is a concern, inside Syria and elsewhere, that once the SAC and its allies beat back the Islamic State north of Deir Ezzor city, they will simply allow Assad’s men and Iranian-backed forces to take control of the turf. The Assad regime’s recent gains in Deir Ezzor only heighten this concern, although it is not clear how much authority the regime can exert over the province. CJTF-OIR’s statement also emphasizes the role of the SAC, without mentioning the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), which is largely comprised of Kurdish fighters.

Indeed, the offensive into Deir Ezzor province was also announced on websites affiliated with the Kurdish People’s Defense Units (YPG) and the Women’s Defense Units (YPJ). The YPG and YPJ are affiliated with the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), a US-designated terrorist organization.

The YPG/YPJ are the main component of the SDF, which has led the charge on the ground against the Islamic State in Raqqa province.

YPG website posted a message and video attributed to the Deir Ezzor Military Council, which is the same body mentioned in CJTF-OIR’s statement. YPG and YPJ flags fly in the background of the video as Ahmed Abu Kholeh, the head of the Deir Ezzor Military Council, announces the new operation in eastern Syria. The military council fights under the banner of the SDF, according to Reuters.

“At a time when ISIS defense lines are broken one by one, terror draws to a close in Raqqa, Syrian Democratic Forces create epics of heroism and sacrifice and 70% of Raqqa has been liberated, ISIS is trying to raise the low morale of their members by attacking the eastern areas of Shaddadi [a town in northeastern Syria] and” Deir Ezzor, the message reads. “That is why we as the [Deir Ezzor] Military Council launched this operation with a spirit of responsibility to support” the people of eastern Syria. “We also salute the SDF for their participation and support and we offer our thanks to the International Coalition forces for their aerial and ground support,” the message continues.

CJTF-OIR’s statement emphasizes that the US-led coalition “will support” the new operation in the Khabur River valley “as part of their ‘advise and assist’ mission, providing equipment, training, intelligence and logistics support, precision fires and battlefield advice.”

The US has already been targeting key Islamic State figures and assets in Deir Ezzor province, including in Mayadin, a city on the Euphrates River that has become a hub for the so-called caliphate’s leadership. [See FDD’s Long War Journal reportUS says 2 more senior Islamic State leaders killed near Mayadin, Syria.]

Thomas Joscelyn is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Senior Editor for FDD's Long War Journal.

Follow the Foundation for Defense of Democracies on Twitter at @FDD

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combined-joint-task-force--operation-inherent-resolve-cjtf-oir, deir-ezzor, pkk, raqqa, sdf, syria, ypg, ypj