For ISIS, Iraq's Spoils Could Tip Balance in Eastern Syria
ISIS's capture of Mosul, Tikrit could provide boon to its Syrian army.
— -- On Wednesday, images surfaced of militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) driving U.S.-made humvees across the Iraqi border, into the Syrian province of Deir Ezzor. If real, the photos prove that the border between Iraq and Syria is now an open road for ISIS fighters hoping to establish a Sunni caliphate in the region. To the leaders of the extremist group, the battles in Iraq and Syria are part of a single, broader fight.
Analysts say the financial and strategic spoils of ISIS's capture of Mosul and Tikrit could provide a significant, nearly unstoppable boon to its Syrian arm, helping turn the tide in the months-long battle for Deir Ezzor.
"The weapons and money that they're gaining through the takeover of Mosul and other areas in Iraq can be used not only to consolidate what they're doing in Iraq, but to send money back into Syria, both to their operation in Deir Ezzor and to push further into the northern part of country, Aleppo and Idlib, where they'd been operating but been pushed back," says Aaron Zelin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who studies the Syrian jihad.
Since late March, Deir Ezzor has seen relentless fighting between ISIS and their main rivals for supremacy in eastern Syria, the al-Qaida-linked Jabhat al-Nusra. Control of the sprawling oil fields in the resource-rich province is a top priority for both groups; in April, the Carnegie Endowment estimated that Syrian oil sales, much of them from the province, are still hitting up to $50 million per month. Some of the oil from Deir Ezzor is smuggled to markets in Aleppo, implying that it transits through ISIS-controlled territory in Raqqa.
Since its emergence in Syria in 2012, ISIS has been moving fighters, weapons and goods across the Iraq-Syria border. Between Hassakeh province, on the Syrian side, and Nineveh in Iraq, it has effectively dominated land routes since last summer.
North of Deir Ezzor, "the border has been porous for some time, and ISIS has been able to use it with impunity," says Aymenn al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Center who studies Syrian military dynamics. "If they capture the province, it makes it all the easier for them to move freely between Iraq and Syria."
The synergies of a growing presence in Syria and a consolidating base in Iraq have strengthened the group's hand, in both countries.
"The spoils from Iraq definitely give them additional military and financial resources to devote here. The tide of battle has turned to ISIS as they push deeper into Deir Ezzor."
"I'm not of the camp who says the border is gone, but it's definitely not well enforced at the moment," says Valerie Szybala, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War who focuses on Deir Ezzor and the eastern provinces.
"The Syrian regime has little to no presence there, and they're not going to step up and do anything about this now. Iraqi security forces are not up to the task. The only bulwark against ISIS now is the Kurds [from neighboring Hassakeh]," she said.
"ISIS really has a lot of freedom of movement right now. You can't [normally] just roll a tank from Iraq into Deir Ezzor through an official border checkpoint."