A new general and a fragile peace in Deir ez-Zor

Photo above: Maj. Gen. Khader (center) tours regime positions near Shoula alongside Feras Jeham (pointing), the commander of the Deir ez-Zor NDF and Republican Guard officers.
 

Five months into his job as commander of regime forces in Deir ez-Zor, Maj. Gen. Nizar Khader appears to have skillfully gained control over the diverse tapestry of loyalist forces in the region. Khader’s return to power in the east quickly put an end to the deadly disputes that had plagued the governorate’s security forces for years. He then launched a nearly three-month campaign, coordinated between Syrian, Iranian, and Russian forces, to push ISIS cells back into the province’s hinterlands, securing the crucial highway connecting Deir ez-Zor with Palmyra and Damascus to the west. His success, while impressive, will face its second major test soon as ISIS prepares for a potential Ramadan offensive.

Khader is uniquely suited for his task in this still over-looked province. Regime-held Deir ez-Zor is guarded by a complicated array of local and non-local security forces, many of which also serve important social and economic roles in their towns. Tribal militias allied with the local National Defense Forces (NDF), mukhabarat officers and their militias, Republican Guard and Syrian Arab Army (SAA) volunteers and conscripts from the west, and a host of foreign and Syrian militias allied with Iran, among others, man outposts and run towns across the governorate. Tensions between the local security forces and the Damascus-commanded SAA have steadily risen in the years following the province’s liberation from ISIS.

SAA-NDF power struggle turns deadly

As in every Syrian governorate, the commander of the Security and Military Committee is ostensibly charged with organizing all pro-Damascus forces in the province. For example, in a joint operation conducted by the 17th Division, Republican Guard, and the NDF, each unit’s commander would ultimately report to this office, which in turn reports to Damascus. In this structure, the SAA high command retains the ability to assert control over local militias at will. Khader’s predecessor, Maj. Gen. Ghassan Mohammad, sought to reinforce this command structure when he was appointed as commander of the committee in November 2019, triggering a new round of power struggles.

Mohammad quickly clashed with the powerful commander of the Deir ez-Zor NDF, Firas Jeham. Jeham has been described as an apolitical man who could have just as easily allied with ISIS as with the regime. He commanded his own criminal group in Deir ez-Zor beginning in 2011 and was only integrated into the NDF in 2013, when his militia threatened to compete with the nascent NDF for power. He quickly rose in prominence by filming himself conducting high-risk missions against ISIS during the siege of Deir ez-Zor City. By the time the four-year siege was lifted and ISIS was pushed out of the towns in the governorate, Jeham had positioned himself as the sole power within the NDF and had rooted the force in the governorate’s tribes. The NDF now employs tens of thousands of locals, most in a part-time manner, and serves as the sole service provider for many of the cities along the Euphrates.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad spent a year trying to force Jeham to submit to the SAA’s command, but Jeham refused. Mohammad, a more traditional Ba’ath officer from western Syria, increasingly showed disdain for the uneducated NDF commander and the local tribes. The SAA withdrew from frontline positions, often under the guise of “training,” while ISIS began to surge. The infighting came to a head in June 2020 when Mohammad attempted to strip Jeham of his position and force the NDF under the command of the SAA’s 17th Division. At this point the Russians reportedly stepped in and deescalated things temporarily.
 

Maj. Gen. Mohammad meeting a new batch of 17th Division conscripts at the Deir ez-Zor Military Airport, September 2020. 

 

Less than two months later, a large ISIS attack in western Deir ez-Zor again set the SAA-NDF relationship spiraling out of control. On Aug. 27, 2020, ISIS militants ambushed a group of NDF fighters just west of the village of Musarib. Between 15 and 30 NDF fighters were killed, including NDF Western Sector Commander Nizar Kharfan. All of the men hailed from the local Busaraya tribe.

The attacks triggered a massive mobilization of tribal fighters who felt unsupported by the SAA. “The tribes have been abandoned in the desert” is how one local fighter described the mood to the author. Busaraya contingents from the pro-regime Liwa al-Quds, Qaterji Forces, and the NDF arrived in Musarib over the next two days, joining local tribesmen mobilized by their sheikh to conduct their own anti-ISIS operations, without the SAA. “We will seek vengeance against ISIS and will not be supported by other tribes or the regime,” the fighter said, as Jeham opened the NDF’s warehouses to the newly formed tribal militia.

Maj. Gen. Mohammad finally met with the NDF in the aftermath of the attack, promising to deploy his better-equipped SAA units to the area — but the reinforcements never came. ISIS continued to kill NDF fighters, all locals, in western Deir ez-Zor in the following months. On Nov. 18, 2020, the NDF sent a clear warning to Mohammad. Brig. Gen. Bashir Ismail, commander of the local SAA regiment, was killed while patrolling a supposedly safe area of the Deir ez-Zor countryside near the city of Mayadin. According to internal NDF accounts, the commander of the NDF’s Mayadin Sector tipped off local ISIS cells to the general’s presence. Three weeks later, on Dec. 8, 2020, Maj. Gen. Mohammad was replaced by his second in command, Khader.

Eagle of the East

While not born in Deir ez-Zor, Khader hails from the same Busaraya tribe that bore the brunt of the ISIS attacks in the fall of 2020. Khader had earned the nickname “the Eagle of the East” while commanding the anti-ISIS operations in Hasakah City in 2015. The then-brigadier general served as the commander of military operations in Hasakah City, successfully pushing ISIS fighters out of their foothold in the Geweran neighborhood of Hasakah and leading his 17th Division soldiers alongside members of the Republican Guard and local tribal militias.
 

Maj. Gen. Khader (left) with commander of the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade Issam Zahreddine (center) and Sheikh Fayez Al-Namis, commander of Hasakah-based tribal militia, in Geweran neighborhood, June 2015.
Maj. Gen. Khader (left) with commander of the Republican Guard’s 104th Brigade Issam Zahreddine (center) and Sheikh Fayez Al-Namis, commander of Hasakah-based tribal militia, in Geweran neighborhood, June 2015.

 

Despite appearing to be favorably viewed by his soldiers as a competent, lead-from-the-front type of general, Khader has spent the past several years shuffled between mid-level posts. Following his victory in Hasakah City, he was appointed to command the 17th Division’s 123rd Artillery Regiment, based just outside Hasakah, and in mid-2017 he again took charge of military operations in Hasakah. In January 2018, Khader was moved out of the governorate and took command of the 5th Corps’ 3rd Brigade. Here he would participate in the north Hama and Idlib offensives over the next two and a half years, fighting alongside the 5th Corps’ Russian advisers and military, and eventually taking command of the Southeast Idlib Sector.

Despite a good combat record during his time in the 5th Corps, Khader was transferred to the 3rd Division in June 2020, where he briefly served as deputy commander. On Aug, 26, the day before the aforementioned attack near Musarib, Khader was assigned as the deputy commander of the 17th Division, returning to the east after almost three years.

Khader secures western Deir ez-Zor

Immediately after Khader took over as head of the 17th Division and the Deir ez-Zor Security and Military Committee, he set out to repair the damage his predecessor had done. He met with tribal leaders multiple times during his first week in office, first by himself, and then alongside Jeham. He then set out to tour the SAA’s positions across the governorate, while also ordering the soldiers out of their barracks and into frontline checkpoints alongside the NDF.
 

Maj. Gen. Khader meeting with tribal leaders shortly after taking office.
Maj. Gen. Khader meeting with tribal leaders shortly after taking office.

 

Khader continued this work into the new year, touring frontline positions alongside Jeham and Republican Guard commanders. Khader, now accompanied by Deir ez-Zor’s political leadership, also continued to meet with tribal leaders, both independently and with Jeham. All of these meetings have been routinely publicized on pro-regime Deir ez-Zor and 17th Division Facebook pages, with both Khader and Jeham receiving lavish praise.

Khader’s first test arrived on the night of Dec. 30, 2020, when ISIS cells conducted a complex ambush against three buses carrying 4th Division soldiers just outside the city of Kababj. The attack left at least 31 dead and 17 wounded, and highlighted the extreme extent to which ISIS had infiltrated the countryside between the M20 Highway and the sprawling Bishri Mountains to the north. Khader quickly organized a counter operation.

Prior to this, no regime operation in the Badia, Syria’s expansive central desert region, has lasted more than a couple of weeks and never encountered stiff resistance from ISIS, which preferred to simply relocate to another area. This was not the case for the new operation. Khader had united the SAA, NDF, Republican Guard, and Afghan foreign fighters from the Iranian-backed Liwa Fatemiyoun for a massive operation aimed at securing the Kababj-Shoula-Deir ez-Zor section of the highway from further attacks. Clashes occurred steadily for the first month, with ISIS cells laying mines, planting improvised explosive devices, and ambushing isolated pro-regime units. Afghan foreign fighters were reportedly killed and wounded every week of January. On Jan. 24, two more troop transport buses were attacked, this time only eight kilometers outside of Deir ez-Zor City.

But Khader continued the operation, now receiving Russian and Syrian air support, and slowly the ISIS cells withdrew. Rare evidence of killed ISIS fighters emerged at the end of January, and attacks in the area ceased throughout all of February. The regime launched additional operations in other parts of the province in February, which appear to have similarly reduced ISIS activity. In late February, regime forces claimed to have uncovered numerous ISIS hideouts and caches, while SAA units set up new positions along the M20 highway. More caches and hideouts were discovered in the first week of March as the loyalist forces moved further north, onto the slopes of Mount Bishri and then east, toward the Musarib countryside, where just six months earlier the NDF had struggled alone against ISIS.
 

Maj. Gen. Khader examining supplies recovered from an ISIS cache near Mount Bishri.
Maj. Gen. Khader examining supplies recovered from an ISIS cache near Mount Bishri.

 

On March 10 the main operation ended. Five days later, ISIS conducted its first confirmed attack in the area in six weeks, targeting a group of civilians east of Mount Bishri. On March 22, large numbers of 4th Division reinforcements from western Syria deployed to northwest Deir ez-Zor, taking over many of the checkpoints that had just been set up by the 17th Division and the NDF. ISIS took advantage of these new troops and their lack of familiarity with the terrain, attacking the checkpoints north of Shoula and killing at least one. Since then, ISIS attacks have steadily ramped up in the area, though not yet directly targeting the highway.

Despite this, the two-and-a-half-month-long operation led by Maj. Gen. Khader should be considered a success. It was a crucial step for the general to take, proving his devotion to the governorate and demonstrating his ability to coordinate between all of the pro-Damascus factions. ISIS activity dropped significantly, and while part of that can be credited to the fact that February is historically a down time for ISIS in the region, the operation clearly succeeded in capturing some hideouts, killing some insurgents, and pushing the cells off of the highway.

But it will take more than one operation to remove ISIS from the northwest corner of the province. The recent deployment of the 4th Division, which often operates independently of the SAA high command, further complicates things. The division is not at all suited for desert combat, and fighters have little to no familiarity with the region. If they continue to take over frontline positions from the more capable SAA, NDF, and foreign fighters, they will open a window of opportunity for ISIS. All of this comes as Ramadan begins, the holy month when ISIS historically launches new offensives, and it remains to be seen if Maj. Gen. Khader can maintain the sliver of peace he has brought to Deir ez-Zor.

 

Gregory Waters is a non-resident scholar at MEI and an analyst at the Counter Extremism Project. His research focuses on the Syrian regime’s security forces, primarily utilizing open source research to assess the capabilities and structure of the Syrian Arab Army and allied militias. He has also written about local governance initiatives in opposition, Turkish, and regime-held Syria and tracks ISIS developments in central Syria. The views expressed in this piece are his own.



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