Seizing control of Deir-Ezzour offers many strategic advantages, making it a potentially better prize than Aleppo.
In recent months, Aleppo has proven to be the main battleground in Syria, with Islamist rebels launching an offensive aimed at lifting the East Aleppo siege. Although the rebels did score some initial gains, the Syrian Arab Army, backed by allied militias (such as the SSNP and Liwa Al Quds), managed to retake all the lost ground.
Now, pro-government forces are on the offensive in Aleppo. Aleppo was Syria’s economic hub, and largest city. Victory in Aleppo would be a symbolic and strategic victory for Assad’s forces and Russia.
Although the situation has improved drastically for the Syrian Army since Russia’s military intervention, they are still overstretched, and unable to launch simultaneous offensives on multiple fronts. Seizing control of Deir-Ezzour offers many strategic advantages, making it a potentially better prize than Aleppo.
Deir-Ezzur is a province in Eastern Syria, bordering Iraq. The province is home to a sizeable proportion of Syria’s oil reserves. ISIS controls some of Syria’s petroleum infrastructure in the province, including the Thayyem oil field, Al-Ward oil field and Kharta oil facility. Retaking Deir-Ezzour would give the Syrian government access to more oil supplies, potentially lowering the price of oil for Syrian consumers and businesses living in government-held areas (this would help tackle the massive price inflation Syrians are facing.)
More than 4,000 soldiers, and many civilians are trapped in the provincial capital, Deir-Ezzuour city. The Russian Air Force (RUAF) has regularly delivered aid and supplies to those trapped in the area. Lifting the siege on the city will reduce the RUAF’s commitments, allowing them to use their resources elsewhere.
Furthermore, thousands of local fighters and soldiers (many of which are part of the elite Republican Guard) could be deployed to another front, potentially aiding a decisive victory at that hypothetical front. Major General Issam Zahreddine is currently leading defensive operations in Deir-Ezzour. His experience and skills could also be utilized at another battlefront if the siege was broken.
Some of the soldiers have been defending the area for several years. This makes them well-experienced in fighting on desert terrain, and holding ground. The general command should take this into consideration when redeploying the soldiers to other areas in Syria.
The closest pro-government forces are based around 150km from the besieged area, near the ancient city of Palmyra. Although this is a large distance, the SAA should be able to advance quickly through much of the distance, as the main highways are located on open roads in the desert.
Thus, much of the fighting will be done by Russian and Syrian warplanes, allowing SAA units to move up without much resistance. The June 2016 Raqqa offensive serves as testament to the above statement, as pro-government forces advanced around 20km on the first day of the offensive.
Retaking villages on the way poses a much greater challenge, but it will still be easier than battling, and advancing against Islamist rebels in Aleppo. A lot of military resources have been committed to operations in Aleppo. Therefore, a victory in the area would also free-up many fighters and armaments. However, military success in Deir-Ezzour offers other benefits.
Retaking the entirety of Deir-Ezzour will make it more difficult for ISIS to transfer fighters and resources between Syria and Iraq. This gives ISIS less room to manoeuvre and limits their options.
In September 2016, President Assad vowed to retake all of Syria. Therefore, based on his narrative, both Aleppo and Deir-Ezzour will need to be liberated at some point. However, it does seem that the situation in Deir-Ezzour is more urgent, and a victory there would make it much easier to advance in Aleppo and other areas.