Why Do Countries Fight over Deir Ez-Zor?
Deir Ez-Zor is commonly known as Arous al-Furat, along with other names such as the Pearl of
the Euphrates and Durrat al-Sharq because it is located on the banks of the River Euphrates,
which divides the governorate into two parts, and because of its geographical location, since it
is the eastern gateway of Syria that links Syrian governorates to Iraq.
Deir Ez-Zor has been widely spoken about in the media after Assad’s forces and their allies succeeded in lifting the siege that ISIS imposed on some of its neighborhoods three years ago.
In spite of the governorate’s available resources, it faced harsh economic and living conditions during the control of the ruling Ba’ath Party. The situation got worse after the Syrian revolutionand ISIS’s entry and control over its large parts in 2014.
The Pearl of the Euphratesis rich with natural resources
Deir Ez-Zor is located 450 km away from the capital Damascus. It is the second largest Syrian governorate in the area after Homs. It covers an area of about 33 square kilometers and represents 17 percent of Syria’s area.
The province has a great economic importance, which caught the attention of the tumultuous countries to take control of it in order to take over its wealth and natural resources.
Economic researcher Soqrat al-Alou stressed to Enab Baladi that the economic importance of Deir Ez-Zor is based on being rich in natural resources. It contains 40% of the oil reserves in Syria, in addition to the existence of natural gas fields, most notably Thayyem field, which is about six kilometers away from the city center.
According to a 2014 report by the Syrian Network for Human Rights entitled “The Oil Weapon in Syria,” the governorate contains the largest oil and gas fields in Syria, the most important of which are al-Omar oil field in the north-east of Mayadin city, the Tink oil field in Al-Shaitat Badia in the city’s eastern countryside, al-Ward field near al-Dwair village in the eastern countryside, Thayyem field near al-Muhasan city in the south of the city, al-Jafra field 25 km away in the east, in addition to Conico gas plant which is located 20 km away in the east of the city, al-Kharata oil station which is located 20 km away in southwest, and T2 oil station which is located on the Iraqi-Syrian oil pipeline.
These fields’ revenues used to go to Assad’s family, the ruling family in Syria, according to al-Shabaka’s report, which quoted several dissident officials as saying that “the largest part of oil revenues was not included into the country’s budget, but they rather go to the family.”
According to the World Energy Statistical Report, issued by PB British company, the oil revenues reached about 385 thousand barrels per day in 2010.
The report pointed out that the revenues were spent on recreational personal expenses, and part of them is allocated to fund the Shabiha and the militias that belong to the ruling family in order to maintain the dictator security country, and engage in subversive terrorist acts to shake the security and stability of the region and the Syrian governorates. Perhaps, a small part of the revenues might have been allocated for urgent economic or political situations “.
After the revolution’s outbreak, the regime lost control of most of the oil fields. Conflicts and disputes occurred between the Free Army and al-Nusra Front, with the aim of taking control over the fields and earning huge financial revenues. ISIS then took control of these fields in 2014 and they become its operations’ largest fund sources. Economic reports indicated that ISIS has been earning at least two million dollars a day from selling oil to many parties, including the regime through intermediaries.
In addition to the oil wells, the importance of the Pearl of the Euphrates is reflected in its contribution to about 30% of Syria’s agricultural production, mainly wheat and cotton, according to al-Alou. al Alou also pointed out that the governorate has great tourist attractions since the Euphrates River passes through the middle of the city, and since the city has many archaeological sites, including the ruins of the Kingdom of Mary (Dura-Europos) and the Citadels of al-Rahba, Halabiye and Zalabiye.
The city is also characterized by its livestock. It has also salt rocks and roots from which rock salt is extracted. In addition, it is considered as the largest source of fresh waterthanks to the Euphrates River along with other rivers such as Khabur River, fountains and wells.
Deliberate marginalization and neglect by the opposition
Despite Deir Ez-Zor’s great resources, it was marginalized during the rule of former president Hafez al-Assad and the rule of his son. The city has faced bad conditions at various economic, social, cultural and political levels, as a result of taking care of only its underground resources and neglecting its development. This increased poverty and the migration of many of its young people to other governorates, to work or study.
Researcher al-Alawi stressed that, during the rule of the two Assads, the city has witnessed a very poor economic situation, and the people did not benefit from the governorate’s natural resources because of the unequal distribution of wealth. In addition, the absence of development projects and discouraging investment in the city turned it into a middle-class city of state employees, farmers, and some self-employed people such as doctors, engineers, traders and lawyers.
As for Hafez al-Assad’s deliberate marginalization of the area, al-Alou explained that his strategy of ruling Syria was based on creating large human gatherings in Damascus and Aleppo by making the universities, hospitals, military sectors and job opportunities only available in these cities in order to facilitate security control of the country. Therefore, the marginalization of Deir Ez-Zor was not a particular case, but it was rather a reality that is similar to the other Syrian governorates, except Damascus and Aleppo. The reality of Suwayda, Daraa, Lattakia and Homs was not better than that of Deir Ez-Zor.
From his part, retired Colonel Hatem al-Rawi, who is originally from Deir Ez-Zor, claimed that Hafiz al-Assad had long marginalized the city which is further marginalized and neglected by the National Coalition for Syrian Revolution, Opposition Forces and successive interim governments after the outbreak of the Syrian revolution. Also, leaving the Free Army unsupported in the city allowed the entry of extremist movements, especially ISIS.
ISIS follows Assad’s steps
Deir Ez-Zor was one of the first cities to revolt against Assad’s regime, but the citizens fell under ISIS’s control, which followed Assad’s steps in looting the city’s wealth and its people’s livelihood.
However, al-Alou pointed out that ISIS and Assad’s regime cannot be compared in terms of the economic management of the governorate. ISIS has no complete economic system that is based on institutions. It rather has a primitive economy that is considered a mixture of what it can extract and sell from the governorate’s oil and agricultural crops, and the taxes it imposes on the citizens, knowing that most of the governorate’s oil wells are out of service because of the discontinuation of maintenance operations and the use of primitive extraction methods, in addition to the difficulty of transferring and selling the extracted oil under the International Coalition’s control and targeting of ISIS’s oil tankers.
Al-Alou, who is from Deir Ez-Zor, said that “the citizens’ living conditions are difficult because the salaries of the employees who live in the ISIS-controlled areas were cut off, in addition to the lack of medical services and absence of education.” He pointed out that farmers and self-employed people are considered to be living in a slightly better situation, since they continued working even with the existence of ISIS. In addition, ISIS-controlled areas’ link between Deir Ez-Zor and Iraq created a trade movement between it and Mosul and Anbar in Iraq, which contributed to a relative economic recovery and a decrease in the prices of basic commodities, especially vegetables and meat.
ISIS empties the citizens’ pockets
Enab Baladi has met a number of Deir Ez-Zor residents who recently left it, to find out the economic and living actual situation under ISIS’ control.
Nasser Hattab, a 56-year-old man who was displaced from Deir Ez-Zor, and who worked as a farmer in the city’s countryside, described what ISIS has been doing in the rest of the areas under its control by saying, “when someone takes your money and gives you a piece of garbage instead, this is a public theft.” He explained to Enab Baladi that “what is happening is shameful and sad, especially when members of ISIS take advantage of the people’s tragedy and poverty and steel the rest of their money by forcing them to deal with ISIS currency.”
More than two years ago, ISIS had minted its currency from dirhams, dinars and five dinars in several areas it controlled in Iraq and Syria. It stacked part of its currency into the markets, but it maintained local and international currencies because they constitute an important part of its foreign dealings and a supporting element of the size of the foreign sector in its regions, especially that most of the citizens’ transactions and dealings are carried out with local and foreign currencies.
From his part, Mohammed al-Khalaf, also known as Abu Abdullah (63 years), a displaced man from Deir Ez-Zor agreed with Hattab that the economic conditions in ISIS-controlled areas have become very degraded and deteriorated, which forced it to take all the ways to get money especially foreign currencies. He also pointed out that the living condition was acceptable several months ago, but with each ISIS’s loss, it becomes more violent, brutal and gluttonous for money.
Abu Abdullah stressed that “the straw that broke the camel’s back in the markets is the imposition of ISIS’s local currency, dirhams, dinars and fils, and the prohibition of dealing with other currencies,” while imposing penalties that might reach to more than two months of imprisonment and torture and fines on anyone who violates the rule (whether he owns or deals with another currency) and according to the amount of money he owns.
The decision to deal in only ISIS’s currency was issued a while ago, but its actual implementation was delayed. ISIS allowed some traders and families to have a margin of financial movement in the markets under its control, and it permitted to deal with other currencies in its markets. However, during the previous months, ISIS has been imposing more restrictions on dealing with the precious metals and other circulated currencies in its markets.
Abu Abdullah considers that this act is expected in light of the embargo imposed on ISIS’s financial resources. Therefore, it needs large amounts of precious metals and foreign currencies to cover up a part of its financial deficit. He pointed out that “it is a policy that some countries adopt during periods of wars and severe financial crises to raise the largest amount of money and make the most possible benefit of the foreign currencies in the areas it controls.”
There is no accurate statistics on the amount of currencies that are collected from the residents, whether they are the Syrian lira, foreign currencies or gold. There is also no clear and confirmed statistics on the number of those who live today in the ISIS-controlled areas, while the residents complain if the situation continues, they will become poor and they will be weakened. This might be one of ISIS’s purposes, which wants to keep civilians within its regions to use them as human shields in its battles, a workforce to help in civil and military actions, and a source of financial extortion.
One of the problems that those who go out of ISIS-controlled areas face is the fact of carrying ISIS’s currency, which exposes them to legal interrogations and accountability. In addition, this currency might be proof of condemnation against them, as confirmed by the displaced man Hassan al-Hamdun, 32, who said that “most of those who get out of ISIS-controlled areas are forced to get rid of ISIS currencies, as to preserve their safety and security and as they fear being accused of belonging to ISIS or supporting and sympathizing with it.”
Al-Hamdun pointed out that ISIS currency is minted with gold and silver, as assumed. Therefore, it can be a container of financial value everywhere, but most of the currency that is in the market and traded among people is made of copper, and has no great value. This means that they will lose a part of their money value when they go out of ISIS-controlled territories, as this currency becomes useless, and selling it would worth less than the purchase price.
The countries’ rush over to Deir Ez-Zor
Three years after ISIS took control over Deir Ez-Zor, countries have been rushing over to take control over this governorate’s cities, especially the Assad’s forces which were supported by Iran and Russia and which have been trying to take control over the west of the Euphrates, while the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) , backed by the US-led international coalition forces, have been trying to take control over the governorate’s eastern parts.
The countries’ rush over to this city is stimulated by its economic importance, in addition to other reasons that researcher Soqrat al-Alou explained by saying that: “The countries’ rush over to this governorate depends not only on its economic importance, but also on geopolitical reasons that are related to each side apart. For Russia and the Syrian regime, Deir Ez-Zor is a great opportunity to widen the area of their control over the Syrian territory, in a way that would strengthen the negotiating position of the regime with the opposition, and would impose the Russian solution that includes keeping Assad in the transitional period, in addition to this city’s economic importance to the regime and its Russian ally, which is seeking to sign investment contracts of the Syrian oil and gas.”
As for Iran, the city is an alternative route to the US-controlled al-Tanf border crossing to realize its strategic project of linking Tehran with Beirut via Iraq and Syria.
While the US goal is to cut the road on the Iranian project in Deir Ez-Zor after al-Tanf, especially in the area of Al-Bukamal.
For the US, the city is also a link between the areas of its control in north-east Syria (Kurdish areas), where several US bases are deployed, as part of a US military return strategy to the region after they retreated from Iraq.
Washington is seeking to create an area of power which would extend from the Turkish borders with Syria and Iraq to the Arab Gulf through Jordan, and would contain US military bases in areas inhabited by Sunni Arabs and Kurds, according to the researcher. This is currently processed since the United States have already established about 12 military bases in Iraq and eight military bases in Syria.
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