Gaziantep, Asharq Al-Awsat—Residents trapped in a rebel-controlled area of a major city in eastern Syria say they have been under siege since the country’s presidential elections earlier this month, and are running out of food and fuel.
Speaking via Skype from the Al-Hamadiyeh neighborhood of Deir Ezzor, Abu Jaffar, a project worker at the Local Opposition Council, told Asharq Al-Awsat that 30,000–40,000 people were trapped in an area surrounded by Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad’s forces to the south and west, and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS)—the extremist Islamist militia that seized control of the northern Iraqi city of Mosul last week—to the north and east.
“We have some stocks of flour, but without fuel we cannot run the generators in the bakeries,” he said. “Our stocks of canned food will run out in about 10 to 15 days.”
Deir Ezzor, the capital of the Syrian province of the same name, was previously a thriving city on the fertile banks of the Euphrates River, but has largely been destroyed by two-and-a-half years of fighting between the Syrian rebels and the regime.
Many of Syria’s oil fields are located in the deserts surrounding the city and have fallen under the control of ISIS in recent months. The rebels in Deir Ezzor say they are now fighting on two fronts—against ISIS on one side, and the regime on the other.
“The city itself is divided in two, between the Free Syrian Army (FSA) and the regime,” said Abu Sultan, a fighter with the Basha’ir Al-Nusr Brigade, a rebel group that is fighting on many of the city’s front lines. “But in the last months we have been fighting ISIS too, and now we are very weak. We are running out of ammunition.”
In the past week, ISIS has taken control of the Policy Bridge, a main thoroughfare across the Euphrates River and previously a lifeline for residents in the rebel-held quarters of the city.
In a desperate attempt to bring food into the city, some residents say they have run the risk of taking small boats back and forth across the Euphrates in the early hours of the morning.
“It’s very dangerous,” said Abu Jaffar. “At any moment they could be shot by the ISIS snipers on the bridge.”
Several sources also told Asharq al Awsat that ISIS fighters were refusing to allow ambulances carrying injured civilians to cross over the bridge.
They said that last Thursday the group opened fire on a convoy that was taking a wounded man out of the city, forcing it to turn back. Due to the severity of his injuries, both of his legs were later amputated in a makeshift field hospital inside the city.
Rebels believe that the Syrian government is subjecting Deir Ezzor to the same blockade tactics that forced the surrender of opposition fighters in the Old City of Homs last month. Unlike the powerful and well-funded rebel coalitions in the northwest of Syria, the moderate opposition in Deir Ezzor is still largely made up of small and poorly equipped units, although ISIS’s chief Islamist rival, the Al-Nusra Front, also has a large presence in the city.
“The rebel groups in Deir Ezzor are moderate, but because of that we can’t find sponsors,” said Hussein, a fighter with the Jaysh Al-Qasas Brigade.
Many in Deir Ezzor are also concerned that ISIS fighters could flood back across the Iraqi border and attack the city with a renewed sense of purpose, and a fresh supply of weaponry, thanks to its capture of Iraqi military arsenals in Mosul.
“We know that from Mosul they can move to Al-Mayadeen in about three hours,” said Abu Sultan. The town is one of the last FSA strongholds in the countryside around Deir Ezzor.
“This is a tragedy,” said Mothana Al-Essa, a doctor and opposition activist from Deir Ezzor. “ISIS is like Resident Evil. They are killing everything.”