Deir ez-Zor, perhaps the most under-lit Syrian city in the media. After the beginning of the civil war, most of the city was mainly controlled by the Free Syrian Army, and then in early July it was taken under control by militants of the Islamic State. Subsequently, in order to surround the city, the Republican Guard launched an attack on their positions. In early December, Islamic state militants attempted to make a breakthrough in the direction of the air base in Deir-ez-Zor - a vital object of the city’s livelihood.
Perhaps Deir ez-Zor is best known for its oil fields; in the initial stages, most of the clashes around the city represented a struggle for control over these strategically important objects. Since the oil fields supplied the Syrian Arab Army (CAA), the Republican Guard, the National Defense Forces (FNL) and the Suqur al-Sahara unit (desert falcons), their seizure more than a year ago was a serious blow to all forces loyal to Assad, who supplied jeopardizing the supply of fuel, which is very necessary for the organization of new attacks. Although Russian contract servicemen from the Slavonic corps were originally sent to protect these deposits, they were unable to reach even the city of Deir ez-Zor.
Declining fuel supplies are already causing widespread tank trailers, since there is simply not enough fuel for the tanks to independently travel to their deployment areas. The situation will not improve until the fields around Deir ez-Zor are taken under the control of government forces.
There are several reasons that explain why there are still a fairly large number of pro-government groups in the city of Deir ez-Zor. First, in early 2014, the military contingent in Deir ez-Zor was reinforced by units of the 104th Republican Guard Brigade, led by Brigadier General Issam Zahreddin. Secondly, the air base is still in the hands of the government. This is very important for the supply of the city, in addition, fighters based on it, have a significant aviation support to troops fighting in and around the city. Third, the Damascus – Palmyra – Deir ez-Zor highway remains under government control. This highway is used to deliver reinforcements and supplies to the city. And finally, the hill above the city remains in the hands of the Syrian Arab Army (SAA). The SAA deployed a large number of howitzers, field guns and multiple launch rocket systems, which can fire at any targets in the city, and also cover approaches to the air base.
The 104 Brigade of the Republican Guard was initially deployed to the city of Aleppo to launch new attacks in the hope of returning some of the positions handed over to and around Aleppo, but was transferred to Deir-ez-Zor at the beginning of 2014 of the year to strengthen the remaining CAA garrison. It is not known whether the entire 104 Brigade or only part of it was transferred to Deir-ez-Zor. Since the number of Republican Army fighters in Deir ez-Zor remains small, the latter seems more likely. The contingent currently deployed in the city of Deir-ez-Zor is headed by Issam Zahreddin of the Druze community and undoubtedly the most popular general in Syria. The reason for his popularity is that he personally leads his soldiers into battle, is always on the front line and shares the same privileges with the soldiers, even if it is, for example, landing in the BMP-1, advancing to the front line.
104 is sometimes referred to as the 104 Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard, and while a small number of soldiers in the brigade were really trained in what could be called a parachute, and one deployed from low-flying helicopters, it is believed that the 104 Brigade is “airborne” only in name, while possessing all the characteristic features of a mechanized brigade. The fact that the Syrian military doctrine does not provide for airborne operations reinforces this theory.
However, the contingent deployed to Deir-ez-Zor managed to get only a limited number of obsolete T-72 Urals, T-72M1, BMP-1 and several ZSU-23 from other units. A pair of Falaq-2 launchers is also in its arsenal. The 104 Brigade, which employs T-72 tanks in Deir ez-Zor, also deployed tanks of this type for the first time in the city, while the 137 Mechanized Brigade only operates T-55 tanks.
During the first combat operations in Damascus, the 104 Brigade had several T-72 tanks equipped with the TURMS-T system (the most modern tanks in Syria), but apparently they were all forwarded to another unit of the Republican Guard. While the brigade lacks a large number of modern tanks, it received a large batch of Sayyad-2 and AK-74M large-caliber sniper rifles, the most modern machine guns in Syria.
It is not surprising that a significant number of Druze fighters are attracted to the service in the 104 Brigade. Presumably, the squad of bodyguards Issam Zahreddin also, for the most part, consists of the Druze. The need for bodyguards is due to its great popularity in Syria, and more importantly, the reward for its head in 200 000 dollars.
The 104 Brigade entered Deir-ez-Zor with two important tasks: ensuring the safety of the airbase by ousting the militants of the Islamic state and surrounding them in the city center, after which a new attack on the oil fields could begin. The first goal after the arrival of 104 was pretty fast. After the fall of Tabka, Zakhreddin remarked: “The air base at Deir ez-Zor is not Tabq air base. We will bury the Islamic state here. ”
The composition of the ground forces that previously operated in Deir-ez-Zor was limited to the 137 mechanized brigade, which had already lost most of its combat power and tanks in two years of heavy fighting, but still retained control over several parts of the city and strategic heights. . Together with the National Defense Forces (FNL), formed from civilians, reservists and a small part of active military personnel, they were busy defending the remaining parts of the city and the air base and did not have the strength to start independent attacking actions.
The strength of the 104 Brigade, deployed at Deir ez-Zor, was quite small and therefore the fighters were forced to carefully balance their forces in order to repel any attacks from the flanks during their own offensive actions. So, while most of the 104 Brigade was thrown into the attack, part of it was distributed around the perimeter of the city to reinforce the CAA and NSO soldiers already deployed there. The battles that took place in the city center were very fierce. Violent local clashes took place on both sides, there were long battles for apartment buildings, when neither side could actually advance. Islamic state militants also actively used tunnels, and some of them were eventually destroyed. The CAA and the NSS could count on the support of artillery from the nearby hills, which later destroyed most of the city. But sometimes this support went sideways, because due to the close proximity of both sides, artillery fire sometimes led to losses in the CAA. A video of the fighting in the city of Deir-ez-Zor can be seen here. www.facebook.com/syria.committees/posts/892835670745184
The press had little coverage of the offensive, the purpose of which was to cut off the center of the city from the territory held by the Islamic state on the opposite side of the river. The brigade was divided into two parts, which attacked from different directions.
As you can see on the map, one part attacked from the side of Al Filat, and the other part forced the river to the island of Sakr. In contrast to the battles in the city, the battle for the island of Sakr was conducted among dense thickets of trees, bushes and crops. Video of the fights on this island here.
During the fighting, Issam Zakhreddin used tactics that the CAA and the NSO could only dream of, especially in the early stages of the civil war in Syria. T-72 tanks advanced, infantry followed, covered with other T-72 and ZSU-23 tanks, infantry cleaned buildings, again received support from T-72 tanks and self-propelled ZSU-23 anti-aircraft systems, and the process was repeated again and again. This tactic contrasts sharply with the tactics of the early days of the Civil War, when tanks were used as rams breaking through the city, often resulting in victims of RPG fire. One of the T-72M1 tanks deployed in Deir-ez-Zor can be seen in the photo below. The flag on the right belongs to the Druze community.
The ultimate goal of the Al Filat-Saqr offensive was to surround the militants of the Islamic state in Deir ez-Zor itself, after which 104 could launch a new offensive in order to bring back the debris scattered around Deir ez-Zor. The battle for the city can be assigned to the CAA, the FNL and the new militias called the National Security Service. Those who have not entered the service in the SSA or the NSO will be recruited to this service, and they will be trained on the basis of the 137-th mechanized brigade.
The negative point in this attack for the CAA, the FNL and the 104 Brigade was that it would reveal even weaker flanks. Since these forces were already stretched in the form of a thin line, sooner or later the Islamic state would try to take advantage of this situation.
Although some suggest that the attack on the airbase is a direct consequence of the stalemate in Kobani, when another victory was needed, but this assumption could be questioned, since the Queberes air base would be better suited for a quick victory. Kveres, the Syrian Air Force’s main training base in the past, was captured in December 2012 and currently represents nothing more than a runway littered with aircraft remains, with units that only have enough power to defend this base.
The air base in Deir-ez-Zor is the home base of the 8 Squadron of the Syrian Air Force, which is armed with MiG-21 fighter jets. About a dozen decommissioned MiG-21 fighters can be seen in a satellite image, which suggests the conclusion that the 8 Squadron received several MiG-21 aircraft from other Syrian squadrons in order to remain in combat formation. The 8 Squadron also lost several aircraft as a result of attacks by groups with anti-tank missile systems that destroyed at least two MiG-21 in fortified aircraft shelters. This forced the Syrian air force to hide most of its aircraft behind shelters dug out of the sand.
Mi-8 / 17, Mi-25 helicopters and even MiG-23BN fighters are also regularly deployed in the city of Deir-ez-Zor. In addition, the 104 Brigade can call the 819 Squadron, which recently received an upgraded SU-24M2 capable of conducting high-precision attacks. These planes are often seen in the sky above the city of Deir ez-Zor.
Four launchers of ground-to-air missiles 2K12 Kub, which protected the air base and the city, were initially deployed to Deir-ez-Zor. While one of them was destroyed by the Free Syrian Army while retreating to its position, and another was put out of action by an Islamic state (one of the captured broken launchers can be seen in the photo below), two are still controlled by Syrian troops. One of these two installations, unfortunately, is only partially operational.
The Damascus – Palmyra – Deir ez-Zor highway, along which the 104 Brigade was deployed to the city of Deir ez-Zor, also remains under government control; it turned out to be vital for the city and was called the “second road of life”. Transport supply columns use this road to supply the CAA, the NSO and the 104 Brigade with supplies, since it is a cheaper alternative to the air bridge of the Syrian Air Force, along which the An-26 and IL-76 transporters fly.
To keep this road, the strategic airbase and the surrounding heights is very important for the SSA, the NSO and the 104 Brigade, which are located in and around the city of Deir-ez-Zor. Previously captured positions can be left in order to free up forces for the defense of the air base in Deir ez-Zor. Since the CAA, the NSO and the 104 Brigade control the surrounding hills, they can cause air and artillery support, which may be enough to guarantee their presence in the city of Deir ez-Zor.
But since the size of the offensive of the Islamic state remains unknown, it is not yet possible to judge at the moment whether the militants will launch a large-scale offensive aimed at dislodging Assad's troops from Deir ez-Zor once and for all, or they are simply trying to defend the SSA, FSS and 104-th Brigade around the airbase, hoping to seize positions in the neighboring areas of Jaffra and Al-Maria for direct shelling of the runway, making it impossible for Syrian air forces to use it. It is also possible that this attack is a distraction maneuver before a future offensive, aimed at capturing some of the positions lost in the past months, and as a result, at preventing a possible environment.