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As Islamic State caliphate nears its end, control of oil-rich Deir al-Zor province becomes prominent

Latest reports and analyses of Islamic State territory show liberation forces closing in on the militant caliphate, and it is believed that it's only a matter of days when the militant caliphate will be pushed out, at least out of Syria.

On Sunday, within five days after the fall of Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State militant government, Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces claimed to have captured the al-Omar oil field from Islamic State fighters on the eastern bank of Euphrates river, dealing a major blow to the militant caliphate which is already facing a constant decline in territory and income.

“Our forces managed to liberate the fields without notable damages,” Lilwa al-Abdallah, spokeswoman for the offensive in Deir al-Zor province, was quoted as saying by Reuters.

A statement by the SDF spokesperson on its website stated that some militants "have taken refuge in a neighborhood" adjacent to the oil field and that efforts are on to eliminate them.

An unverified report claimed that the US coalition forces had to enter further into Islamic State territory, cross the Khabur River and liberate villages along the river before taking control of the oil field.

 As Islamic State caliphate nears its end, control of oil-rich Deir al-Zor province becomes prominent

Fighters of Syrian Democratic Forces ride atop of an armoured vehicle after Raqqa was liberated from the Islamic State militants, in Raqqa. ReutersIra

If these reports are true, Islamic State seems more or less done in Syria and the remaining challenge for the liberation forces would be taking control of Islamic State territories along the Iraq-Syria border. Notably, if the advances are true, and there are several reports pointing at that, the conflict against Islamic state is likely to be concentrated in three major areas:

Key battleground: Euphrates Valley and the desert in Deir al-Zor

With the fall of Raqqa and now US-led forces taking control of Al-Omar oil field, the campaign against Islamic State in Syria is now concentrated in its last footholds — a strip of the Euphrates valley and the desert in Deir al-Zor (also Deir ez-Zor), Reuters said.

The fight in the oil-rich Deir-al-Zor province, however, is going to be crucial not just for Islamic State but also for both US- and Russia-supported forces competing to control as much of the province as possible.

The Syrian army, with Russian air power and Iran-backed militias, has been waging its own offensive against Islamic State, mostly to the west of the river. According to latest reports, it is currently fighting the last few Islamic State militants in Deir al-Zor city. Once they are eliminated, the Islamic State territories in desert in Deir al-Zor and the Western and South banks of Euphrates river are likely to emerge as the main battleground.

The US-supported alliance of Kurdish and Arab militias (which also includes SDF) is in a race against Russian-backed Syrian government troops to seize as much of the Deir al-Zor province bordering Iraq as possible. Al-Omar is located on the east bank of the Euphrates River in eastern Deir al-Zor bordering Iraq, and control over the oil field will play a strategic role in post-Islamic State negotiations.

The SDF and allies are therefore likely to focus on territory east of the river, which bisects the oil-rich province of Deir al-Zor. They may push further east and focus on areas east of the Euphrates Valley (which are not under the Syrian Army's control) to maintain a strategic advantage.  At present, the SDF is busy fighting jihadists holed up in buildings in a nearby district following the takeover of al-Omar oil field.

Where does Islamic State stand now

The self-styled "caliphate" declared on 29 June, 2014 across swathes of Iraq and Syria, controlled around 90,800 square kilometres in January 2015, but by June 2017, that number dropped to 36,200. Whereas, its average monthly revenue plummeted by 80 percent, from $81 million in the second quarter of 2015 to just $16 million in the second quarter of 2017, analysis firm IHS Markit, had said in June. In the first six months of 2017, Islamic State lost around 24,000 square kilometers of territory.

At present, the jihadist outfit is boxed in with Kurdish forces closing in from North-West, Syrian Army from South-West and Iraqi govt forces from the East. But all forces battling Islamic State will have to remain vigilant even after they recapture the last militant-held territory. In some ways, they now face an even more daunting challenge.

According to AP, Hisham Al Hashem, an Iraqi writer and analyst, estimates there remain 8,000 militants in Iraq’s Anbar who will melt away “like salt in water” to wait for the right moment to launch their next insurgency or suicide attack.

Islamic State affiliates continue to carry out swift attacks in Egypt and Libya, where the group gained a foothold and which could be its preferred theaters of retaliations. Before it broke away from Al-Qaeda and rebranded itself as the Islamic State Al-Qaeda in Iraq waged a years-long insurgency following the 2003 US invasion of Iraq, pushing the country to the brink of civil war.

But most importantly, no one seems to be aware of the exact whereabouts of Islamic State leader Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi,  who according to an audio recording, urged his followers to burn their enemies everywhere and target “media centres of the infidels”.

Russian officials said in June there was a “high probability” that Baghdadi had died in a Russian air strike on the outskirts of the Syrian city of Raqqa, the group’s de facto capital. However, US officials later said they believed he was still alive.

Baghdadi’s whereabouts is unknown but he is believed to be in Islamic State’s dwindling territory in eastern Syria.

Uncertain future

Even as the end of the Islamic State caliphate draws near, critics can't shed the fears of a repeat of the situation that actually led to its rise Iraq and Syria. According to an article in Washington Examiner, Iraq and Syria are faced with two main challenges, for which they must prepare:

First, as the Islamic State grows weaker, it presents more opportunities for Iran to exert increasing pressure on Iraq prime minister Haider al-Abadi in order to ensure Sunni and Kurdish political blocs become second-tier players in Iraq's political future. "If Iran gets its way, it will plant the seed of a terrorist successor to the Islamic State," warns the report.

Second, if the post-Islamic State Syria regime (which is supported by Iran) expands its assault on Syria's people, as well as half-dozen other sectarian fights, it could bring the nation back into a cycle of violence, causing further destruction to the region, which may eventually spread to the neighbouring countries as well. And to counter another Islamic State like situation, efforts to "counter Iranian malevolence in Baghdad must be given economic, military, and intelligence priority," advises the report.

The fears of the author have merits. The rise of Islamic State and subsequent wars and alliances to bring about its defeat has given unprecedented clout to Kurdish populations in both countries, unsettling their central governments, as well as Iran and Turkey, both battling Kurdish separatists within their own borders.

Under cover of the fight against Islamic State, Iraq’s Kurds seized the oil-rich city of Kirkuk in 2014 — a move Baghdad has now reversed, moving into the city, seizing oil fields and other infrastructure in an attempt to curb Kurdish aspirations for independence.

The shifting and chaotic battlefields in Syria’s civil war, tensions between Kurds and ethnic Arabs, the presence of Shiite militias and government troops in predominantly Sunni towns and cities vacated by Islamic State may lead to more violence.

In many ways, the fight over Islamic State spoils and territories is only just beginning.

While the liberation of Raqqa, the capital of Islamic State, is being seen as a jubilant moment in the fight to end the reign of the militant caliphate, at least in Syria, the remains of the war-torn Raqqa feel otherwise.

With inputs from agencies

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Updated Date: Oct 23, 2017 16:03:29 IST

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