The Syrian province of Deir Ezzor is back in the news after Israel's devastating airstrikes on Syria. However, against this background, most of the Western media has overlooked other events that may prove to be far more important to the security of both the Middle East and Europe.
Terrorism on the rise: Since late December of last year, Deir Ezzor has seen an increase in ISIS terrorist activity. On December 25, at least 25 people were killed in a terrorist attack on a passenger bus traveling on the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway in eastern Syria. This was reported by the SANA agency. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that Syrian soldiers were on the bus, and 37 people were killed − ISIS took responsibility for the attack.
“It was one of the deadliest attacks since the fall of the IS caliphate last year”, Observatory head Rami Abdurrahman told AFP. This attack was followed by other deadly terrorist assaults in the province. In one of these, Mazzen Hassoun, a Syrian general, was killed. On December 30, militants again attacked Syrian army soldiers on the Deir Ezzor-Homs highway.
The attacks continued into the new year. On January 3, ISIS attacked a bus in the same Kabajib area where a bus carrying soldiers was hit on December 25. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 15 people, mostly government soldiers, were killed in the January 3 attack. On January 12, the media reported the deaths of “eight regime loyalists” in the same province of Deir Ezzor. Several military personnel were also reported captured. The Syrian army is trying to reinforce its positions in the desert in order to deter the terrorist onslaught.
The return of the terrorists has not escaped the attention of European security structures. “Daesh has regained strength in Syria,” French Armed Forces minister Florence Parly said on January 10.
The reasons for the new tension
According to Syrian political analyst Hadi Abdullah, terrorists have increased pressure on regular Syrian army units in Deir Ezzor after the units of the Russian private military company Wagner Group left the province. The first reports of the Russians’ withdrawal began on December 23. Hadi Abdulah’s website published photos of Russian military equipment allegedly leaving the province. “There are rumors that ISIS on the opposite bank of the Euphrates is preparing for the attack on the city and its neighborhoods,” the Syrian expert noted.
The Wagner Group troops are known to be Russian “boots on the ground” in Syria. They were the ones who provided the Russian military presence and the fight against terrorists in different regions of Syria. The Wagner Group liberated Palmyra twice from ISIS occupation. Palmyra is a unique world heritage site of ancient civilization and archaeological splendor in the Syrian desert. The group also participated in the cleansing of Latakia and the eastern and central regions of Aleppo, Syria’s second largest city, from the terrorists.
The Russian PMC thus played a crucial role in liberating the province of Deir Ezzor from ISIS and lifting the siege from the provincial capital in 2017.
Syrian sources now claim that the Russians’ withdrawal could have disastrous consequences for the region. Even sources that seems to be loyal to the Syrian opposition claim that “the withdrawal of the Russian army from this area will only exacerbate the situation in the area controlled by the regime”.
It has also been reported that “ISIS fighters began to move inside the city and launched separate attacks in coordination with the American forces, especially from the Al-Tanf area.”
Syrian political analyst Osama Danoura highlighted that “most of the attacks and riots in Deir Ezzor took place during the past few days immediately after the withdrawal of the Russians, and if the situation continues as it is, this city will once again plunge into chaos and control of Deir Ezzor will be lost”.
There has been no official confirmation of this information for the time being. However, if the Syrian reports are true, then the question arises as to why Russian Wagner group has been leaving Deir Ezzor. What foreign policy or diplomatic strategies is this move related to? Does this mean that there is a disagreement between the Syrian authorities and the Russians? Is it a sign that an offensive is being planned in other areas where the Russian PMC is now needed more urgently? And will the Wagner Group have to fight for the liberation of Deir Ezzor a second time?
For Europe, and for Germany in particular, the outbreak of fresh ISIS violence in Syria is certainly the most consequential. Europe remembers the 2015 wave of “refugees” and the problems that followed in the wake of the mass influx. A new wave of violence means new migrants, and with them terrorists and extremists posing as victims of war. Furthermore, German authorities may extend the ban on deportations of Syrians, which was set to expire on December 31, 2020. The increased activity of ISIS in Syria is a good pretext for this.
Europeans should keep a closer eye on what is happening deep in the Syrian desert. It is quite possible that the EU will soon feel the effects of the changes in the region.
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