The divided town of Deir Ezzour is a microcosm of Syria’s bitter conflict

As the threat of military intervention continues to loom over Syria, in a far-flung corner of the country, the town of Deir Ezzour offers an insight into the suffering of ordinary Syrians.

Once a thriving hub of Syria’s oil industry, today Deir Ezzour has become a bleak microcosm of Syria’s conflict. The town, on the banks of the Euphrates River, some 280 miles north-east of the capital, is divided. Half is under the control of Syrian government forces. The other half is in the hands of armed opposition fighters, who also control much of the surrounding areas all the way to the Iraqi border.

Few outsiders make it to this isolated region. No human rights organisations and only a handful of journalists have visited the town. The opposition-controlled section of Deir Ezzour is the only area I can access, as the Syrian government has banned Amnesty and other human rights organisations from areas of the country it controls. The streets are eerily quiet and much of the town is in ruins. Many of the residents have fled. The empty shells of burned and bombed-out buildings line the streets - a testament to the unrelenting air strikes, artillery, mortar and tank shelling by President Bashar al-Assad’s troops.

The only way in or out of Deir Ezzour is across a bridge which regularly comes under sniper fire from government forces. There is, unsurprisingly, little traffic. A few taxis ferry residents back and forth, driving at breakneck speed to dodge the bullets. Those who dare to cross - civilians and fighters alike - are often killed or injured in the process. Within two hours of my arrival in the town, I am at a local hospital, where the reality of that risk strikes home. A young man has been shot while crossing the bridge. He is pronounced dead almost immediately. He never stood a chance; a large-calibre bullet had left a gaping wound in his head. Everyone I meet has lost relatives and friends, many in the constant indiscriminate bombardments, while others have been summarily executed.

Abd al-Wahed Hantush, a 38-year-old firefighter, tells me how he lost six members of his family last October. His mother, wife and two children were killed when their car came under fire as they tried to cross from a government-controlled area back to the other side of town. His brother and sister-in-law were also killed in the incident, along with dozens of other civilians. “They had gone to visit my sister in the al-Jura district of the city, which is under the control of government forces,” Abd al-Wahed says. “There was no way back except through the hills on the outskirts of the city. There are often government soldiers in that area, but it was the only way.”

They never made it back. Their bodies - slaughtered and half-burned - were discovered the following day. Abd al-Wahed’s eyes well up with tears as he shows me photographs of his five-year-old daughter, Sham, and his three-year-old son, Abderrahman, on his mobile phone. “They were all I had; I’ve lost everything,” he said.

Abd al-Wahed has cuts and burns on his face, neck, chest and arms. Four days earlier he had gone to put out a fire in a house which was hit by a rocket. “When I got there another rocket fell and exploded very near where I was,” he says. He’s lucky to be alive. Two more rockets struck the area soon afterwards.

Rockets and shells pound Deir Ezzour day and night, smashing into residential buildings or landing in the streets. For the civilians left in town there’s little they can do to keep safe. The nights are punctuated by the thumping sound of incoming artillery, and occasionally the sound of outgoing mortars fired by the armed opposition groups reverberates across the town. Everywhere, fragments of the Grad rockets fired by government forces from a hill overlooking the town litter the ground.

I visit a family with two small children who are now living in their shop in the basement of a building. “There is shelling all the time but sometimes it is unbearable. During the week of 23 May it was relentless. Batteries of 12 rockets would land in quick succession. It went on at that pace for two weeks; it was impossible to go out even to get bread,” the children’s father explained. “We avoid going out as far as we can; here we are a bit protected.” Few families have a basement in which to shelter.

Meanwhile, a children’s playground in one corner of the town has been converted into a cemetery. Tombstones surround the colourful slides, no longer in use as children are now kept indoors. Some of the graves belong to children who used to play there. In one corner of the deserted playground is a particularly well-tended grave. It belongs to 11-year-old Ahmad Karjusli, who was killed on 19 October last year. Local residents tell me that the child’s mother spends every afternoon by his grave. Later that day, I find her there - alone and crying. Her mobile phone lay on the grave mound playing religious music.

“I only had two children and Ahmad was my youngest, my darling,” she tells me. “He was such a good boy. My life is empty without him. Why was he taken from me? I cannot bear the pain.” She shows me photographs of him on her mobile phone; he looks very much like his mum. Ahmad was standing by his own front door along with a four-year-old neighbour, Abderrahman Rayyash, when a shell landed in the street and killed them both.

As has happened all too often in the Syrian conflict, it is civilians who have borne the brunt of the spiralling violence. In Deir Ezzour, as elsewhere, the suffering is also hardening feeling among a civilian population who feel increasingly abandoned by the rest of the world.  When I mentioned to townspeople that I wanted to investigate sectarian violence allegedly carried out by armed opposition groups in the nearby town of Hatla (like Deir Ezzour, Hatla is predominantly Sunni Muslim) some expressed disapproval and others discouraged me from going. Many were distinctly unsympathetic to the plight of their Shi’a neighbours and others worried that what I would discover could tarnish the image of the Syrian uprising.

Pain, loss and anger can make people blind or indifferent to the suffering of others. This is something I have come across all too often in the many conflicts and wars I’ve worked on over the years and Syria is no different. The longer this increasingly brutal conflict goes on, the greater the damage will be to the very fabric of Syrian society - and the harder it will be for the wounds of this conflict to heal.

Syrian rebels fighting pro-regime forces gather along a road in Deir Ezzour. Image: Getty
Photo: Getty
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Who'll win the Richmond Park by-election?

There are three known unknowns that will decide the contest. 

It’s official: Zac Goldsmith has resigned as the Conservative MP for his Richmond Park seat, and has triggered a by-election there, where he will stand as an independent candidate.

Will it be a two-way or a three-way race?

The big question is whether the contest will be a three way fight between him, the Liberal Democrat candidate Sarah Olney, and an official Conservative candidate, or if CCHQ will decide to write the thing off and not field a candidate, making it a two-horse race between Goldsmith and Olney.

There are several Tory MPs who are of the opinion that, given that latitude to disagree on Heathrow has been granted to two Cabinet ministers, Boris Johnson and Justine Greening, similar leeway should be extended to Goldsmith. It’s win-win for Downing Street not to contest it, partly because doing so would put anti-Heathrow MPs, including Johnson and Greening, in an impossible position. Theresa May isn’t averse to putting Johnson in a tricky spot, but Greening was an early supporter of her leadership bid, so her interests come fairly high up the prime ministerial radar.

But the second reason not to contest it is that Goldsmith’s chances of re-election will be put in a serious jeopardy if there is a Tory candidate in the race. Everything from the local elections in May or the Liberal mini-revival since Brexit indicates that in a three-way race, they will start as heavy favourites, and if a three-way race results in a Liberal Democrat win there will be bloodletting.

Although people are talking up Goldsmith’s personal vote, I can find little hard evidence that he has one worth writing home about. His performance in the wards of Richmond Park in the mayoral election was actually a bit worse than the overall Tory performance in London.  (Boris Johnson didn’t have a London seat so we cannot compare like-for-like, but Sadiq Khan did four points better in Tooting than he did across London and significantly outperformed his general election performance there.) He did get a big swing from Liberal to Conservative at the general election, but big swings from the Liberal candidate to the Tory were a general feature of the night, and I’m not wholly convinced, given his performance in Richmond Park in 2016, that it can be laid at Goldsmith’s door.

If he wins, it’ll be because he was the Conservative candidate, rather than through any particular affection for him personally.

But will being the Conservative candidate be enough?

Although on paper, he inherits a healthy majority. So did Robert Courts, the new MP for Witney, and he saw it fall by 19 points, with the Liberal Democrats storming from fourth to second place. Although Goldsmith could, just about, survive a fall of that magnitude, there are reasons to believe it may be worse in Richmond Park than Witney.

The first is that we already know, not just from Witney but from local council by-elections, that the Liberal Democrats can hurt the Conservatives in affluent areas that backed a Remain vote. But in Witney, they barely squeezed the Labour vote, which went down by just over two points, or the Green vote, which went down by just under two points. If in Richmond Park, they can both damage the Tory vote thanks to Brexit and squeeze Labour and the Greens, they will win.

Goldsmith's dog-whistle campaign for the London mayoralty will particularly help squeeze the Labour vote, and thanks to Witney, the Liberal Democrats have a ready-made squeeze message. (In Witney, Green and Labour votes would have been more than enough to elect Liz Leffman, the Liberal candidate.)

But their good performance in Witney and Goldsmith's mayoral result may not be enough on their own.  Ultimately, the contest will come down to the big question that will decide not just the outcome in Richmond Park but the future of the Liberal Democrats.

Have the voters forgiven the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition?

We know that Brexit can help the Liberal Democrats at the direct expense of the Conservatives. What we don’t know is if Brexit is enough to convince 6,000 Labour voters in Bath to vote tactically to get Ben Howlett out in exchange for a Lib Dem, or for 7,500 Labour voters to back a Liberal candidate in Hazel Grove to defeat William Wragg.

One of the reasons why the Liberal Democrats lost votes directly to the Tories in 2015 was fear: of uncertainty and chaos under an Ed Miliband government propped up by the SNP. That factor is less live in a by-election but has been further weakened due to the fact that Brexit – at least as far as Remain-backing Conservatives are concerned – has brought just as much uncertainty and chaos as Miliband and the SNP ever would have.

But the other reason was disgust at the Liberal Democrats for going into coalition with the Conservatives. If they can’t win over enough votes from the parties of the left, we’ll know that the party still has a way to come before we can truly speak of a Liberal revival. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.