In August 2014, ISIS executed nearly 700 civilians in the Syrian city of Deir Ezzor. Since then, the city has been perpetually subject to killing sprees that are rarely documented in the media. Just last month, ISIS abducted approximately 400 civilians in Deir Ezzor and was responsible for the deaths of eighty-five others, with some sources claiming that up to 300 were killed.
But, ISIS is not fully to blame for the massacres in Deir Ezzor. The Syrian regime, along with its Russian and Iranian allies, recently intensified its aggression in the city, in the name of combating terrorism. For example, in response to the ISIS abductions last month, the regime and its allies launched a series of airstrikes that ultimately decimated civilian areas and killed at least seventy-seven people.
In an interview about the regime’s recent military activities, Bouthaina Shaaban, a senior advisor to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, said that government forces have never intentionally killed civilians and that only terrorists, like ISIS, are targeted. Assad himself suggested the same in an interview with the Spanish news outlet El Pais, but took it a step further by claiming to be “saving Syria.”
Local sources in Deir Ezzor, however, repeatedly claim that Assad’s forces are indiscriminately targeting noncombatants. Given Assad’s history of aggression against civilians, including the chemical attacks in eastern Ghouta in 2013, these allegations are neither new nor surprising.
What is striking is how the regime so shamelessly blames ISIS for the civilian deaths it is directly responsible for. According to one source who spoke to Middle East Eye, “the Syrian regime [continues] to bomb densely populated civilian areas of [Deir Ezzor] and the countryside surrounding it to the east and west,” while claiming to defend the very people it is killing.
Worse yet, the regime has restricted Deir Ezzor’s inhabitants from accessing food, water, and medicine as part of a “kneel, or starve and die” policy intended to collectively punish those who oppose the government. Assad’s forces have even gone so far as to kill anyone attempting to sneak supplies into the city. Reports indicate that food and medical supplies are airdropped by Assad’s Russian allies to only those parts of the city known to be sympathetic to the regime.
In this and other ways, the regime is using its fight against ISIS as a cover-up for the war crimes it is committing. With Deir Ezzor controlled by ISIS to the east and the Syrian regime to the west, civilians are victims of a “double siege”. Because most civilians live among ISIS fighters in the eastern bloc of Deir Ezzor, the regime can directly target them while attempting to draw moral criticism away from its actions and characterizing its victims as unfortunate casualties in a war it has been forced to fight.