Syria Military Brief: North-East Syria – May 2023

This brief covers the reporting period of the month of April 2023

Syria’s central Badia desert region remains plagued by violence and bloodshed. During the month of April, clashes broke out between rival armed groups affiliated with the regime, ISIS, and Iranian-backed forces all vying for control of the truffle trade, killing armed elements but also engaging in the mass murder of civilians. At least 33 civilians were either killed or went missing during the month, while a further two were kidnapped by ISIS. Despite efforts by various groups to assert their dominance in the region, violence has continued unabated. In addition to clashes between armed groups, landmines around the Jabal al-Bishri area have also claimed civilian lives. Amid ongoing economic stagnation and struggle for resources, smuggling remains another potent flashpoint between armed groups in north-east Syria. This has resulted in several high-profile turf battles, including violent clashes between the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) and Russian-backed 5th Corps around the river crossing at al-Tabiya/Jadeed Akidat, a common smuggling point. The fighting grew fierce enough to prompt intervention by Russian troops, who entered the area to unilaterally force a shutdown of the crossing.

Attached Map: Military Situation in North-East Syria
(For a high-resolution version of this map, please use the form at the bottom of the page)


Targeting of Civilians

With the truffle hunting season in its final weeks, armed groups in the central Badia engaged in bloody clashes in a bid for control and profit of the lucrative trade. Multiple clashes between regime, ISIS, and Iranian-backed forces in the Deir Ezzor desert resulted in the deaths of two pro-regime troops. At least 33 civilians were either killed or went missing, while another two were kidnapped by ISIS.

The radical group has meanwhile been expanding its presence in the north-east. There has been a recent increase in the appearance of pro-ISIS leaflets hanging on walls, mosques, and electricity poles around the Deir Ezzor countryside. These often contain death threats, targeting specific individuals and accusing them of various charges, including non-payment of the Islamic zakat tax and collaboration with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

ISIS Activity

ISIS operations against the SDF have also ramped up significantly in recent weeks: the group is responsible for 13 armed attacks and an IED blast across Raqqa, Deir Ezzor, and Hasakah provinces. At least 13 SDF members died in these attacks, with many more wounded. 

Casualties among regime forces at the hands of ISIS are also on the rise: 12 armed attacks and an IED blast killed 16 pro-regime fighters this past month. 

In addition to regime forces, ISIS is also increasingly targeting Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Iranian-backed militias. In April, at least seven Iranian-backed forces were killed in four separate ISIS-led ambushes. The National Defense Forces (NDF) militia, along with Liwa al-Quds militia and the regime’s 17th Division, launched a sweeping operation targeting ISIS sleeper cells in the western Deir Ezzor desert.

Russian & Pro-Regime Activity

Iran and its proxies have stepped up their presence across the north-east this past month. The IRGC and Iranian-backed militias underwent several redeployments in recent weeks, and Iranian militias also brought reinforcements in preparation for a military campaign east of Raqqa. Additionally, the IRGC transformed the Deir Ezzor Vanguard camp–an old Baath Party camp–into a base and operations site for Iranian militias. Posing as earthquake relief aid from Iraq, dozens of trucks have entered the camp, bringing military equipment.

Lebanese Hezbollah continued its own recruitment campaign in the Palmyra region, attracting at least 48 young men into their ranks since mid-March. Meanwhile, the Iranian-backed Afghani Shia militia Liwa’ al-Fatemiyoun launched new recruitment efforts of its own in Deir Ezzor city.

On the Russian side, forces continued weekly joint military patrols along the north Hasakah countryside with the Turkish army. Additionally, hundreds of young men from across the country traveled to the Homs desert to enroll in the al-Sayed Security Company, a known cover group for the Russia-linked Wagner private military contractor. It is expected that the recruits will be transferred to Libya to protect Russian interests there.

SDF Activity 

Violent clashes erupted between the SDF and Russian-backed 5th Corps in the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside, where fighting broke out near the crossing point between SDF-held al-Tabiya and regime-held Jadeed Akidat. Russia later closed the border area, sending in an additional heavy deployment of 5th Corps forces.

The SDF continues to crack down on smuggling and drug trafficking in the north-east, stepping up raids on pharmacies and confiscating 20 barrels of diesel, claiming the supplies were headed toward Turkish-controlled Peace Spring areas. 

Meanwhile, the co-presidency of the SDF’s Self-Defense Office issued a general amnesty decree for all fighters fleeing forced conscription, provided that they are not convicted of terrorism or certain criminal acts. The SDF meanwhile released 22 previously detained ISIS fighters during Eid al-Fitr for good behavior during their detention; all those released had completed three-quarters of their total sentences at Raqqa Central Prison. The SDF also released 20 non-ISIS detainees who had been imprisoned for several years at a facility in the eastern Deir Ezzor countryside, with plans to release 40 others soon.

Political & Humanitarian Developments

Northeastern communities’ frustrations with the Self Administration saw several protests emerge across Deir Ezzor. 

In the al-Hol and al-Roj camps, the Self Administration handed over 15 Canadian children to an Ottawa delegation. Norway also received two women and three children from ISIS families who are being held in Roj. 

Amidst continuing poor humanitarian conditions and an outbreak of measles among the children of al-Hol, the SDF arrested dozens of residents during a series of three raids centered around the 5th Section of the camp. Additionally, suspected ISIS members burned down the Shams Organization’s meeting place in the 4th Syrian Section. A Syrian woman was also found stabbed in the 5th Section of the camp.

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