Country Risk

Four key territorial challenges risk escalating Syrian conflict after fall of Islamic State’s caliphate

24 November 2017

Key Points

  • The Syrian government is unlikely to adhere to the Astana de-escalation zones agreement once it has fully re-established control over Deir al-Zour province.
  • US-backed Kurdish components of the SDF are likely to hand control of Deir al-Zour’s oilfields back to the Syrian government, despite likely resistance from Sunni tribal factions.
  • The Syrian Kurds are likely to be granted a degree of political autonomy within the Syrian Arab Republic, but an agreement will be contingent on the return of territory captured from the Islamic State by the SDF.
  • Turkey is likely to be presented with a fait accompli on Kurdish autonomy, as approved by Russia, despite their objections.
  • Israel is likely to seek to communicate and enforce its ‘Red Lines’ over the deployment of Iranian proxies near the Golan, risking escalation to another war with Hizbullah that would probably involve Syria.


The Syrian army and its allies announced on 19 November that they had regained control of Bu Kmal, the last significant town held by the Islamic State in Syria.

The future status of Deir al-Zour’s oil fields

The US-backed, predominantly Kurdish, Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) took control of the al-Omar and al-Tanak oil fields in Deir al-Zour province in October, amid unverified claims that they had negotiated a handover of the fields with Islamic State-affiliated tribesmen. If reports of Islamic State fighters defecting to the SDF are correct – which IHS Markit assesses are plausible – these were probably local tribal components of the Islamic State, rather than more ideologically committed foreign fighters. Faced with inevitable defeat, they preferred the oil fields to fall into the hands of the SDF, rather than the Syrian government.Syrian government territorial gains between 21 September 2015 and 20 November 2017 (© 2017 IHS Markit) Syrian government territorial gains between 21 September 2015 and 20 November 2017 (© 2017 IHS Markit)

The government will almost certainly prioritise recovery of the al-Omar and other fields from the SDF in the coming months. Russian efforts have accelerated since early October to co-ordinate between Damascus and Kurdish representatives, which reportedly resulted in the SDF handing over the Conoco gas facility in northern Deir al-Zour province to the Syrian army on 18 October.

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