Deir ez-Zor: Protracted Stalemate

Deir ez-Zor Occupation Status

The Syrian city of Deir ez-Zor, a governorate capital and primary hub of Syria's oil and natural gas region, has been actively contested by Syrian regime forces and Sunni opposition groups, including the Islamic State, since 2012. Opposition groups first seized control of key neighborhoods throughout the city in June of that year, but ongoing fighting with the Syrian regime destroyed an estimated 70 percent of the city through early 2014. In August 2014, the Islamic State wrested control of these opposition-held areas within the city, although forces loyal to the Syrian Arab Republic remained firmly entrenched in neighborhoods representing some 40 percent of the city. Throughout the time period examined in this study (through mid-2016), control of territory within Deir ez-Zor city has ebbed and flowed on a neighborhood-level basis between ISIL and the Syrian regime.

Analysis of satellite-derived measures of economic activity in Deir ez-Zor suggests that ISIL was ineffective at governing the neighborhoods and local economies under its control.


ISIL's arrival in the city in June 2014 appears to coincide with an immediate but short-lived drop-off in nighttime lighting. Although nighttime lighting peaked once again by October 2014, some reports suggested that the city still only had four to five hours of electricity per day as a result of fuel shortages for generators. The electricity situation in Deir ez-Zor worsened through early 2015 and bottomed out over the course of 2016 at only 5 to 10 percent of its pre-ISIL levels of nighttime lighting. It should be noted that Deir ez-Zor city was still in the midst of an active conflict between opposition and regime forces in January 2014, suggesting that ISIL's harmful effects on the city were particularly robust.

Nighttime Lighting in Deir ez-Zor This video of nighttime lighting in Deir ez-Zor from January 2014 through June 2016 is based on monthly composites of satellite images of the city at night.

Researchers were able to compare how electricity consumption in ISIL-controlled Deir ez-Zor neighborhoods differed from that in neighborhoods that are contested and those that are controlled by the Syrian regime. To do so, they measured monthly territorial control within 13 discrete areas of Deir ez-Zor, then used a regression approach to statistically isolate the impact that ISIL control of certain neighborhoods has on nighttime lighting. Results from this regression suggested that contested areas, where neither ISIL nor Syrian regime forces controlled the entirety of the neighborhood, showed significantly lower levels of nighttime lighting than areas controlled solely by the regime. Additionally, although nighttime lighting in ISIL-held areas of Deir ez-Zor was lower than in regime-held areas, this difference was not statistically significant.


LandScan estimates of Deir ez-Zor's population from between 2008 and 2016 reveal, somewhat surprisingly, that the city's population remained relatively constant over the course of ISIL's contestation of the city—ranging between 220,000 and 242,000 residents. Researchers restricted their estimates to the urban core of the city, as opposed to its full environs, so total population figures might fall slightly below published estimates.

The Population of Deir ez-Zor, measured using LandScan data, remained relatively constant during ISIL's lengthy attempt to gain control of the city.

As with nighttime lighting, researchers compared how Deir ez-Zor's population changed within areas controlled solely by the Islamic State, controlled solely by the Syrian regime, and contested between the two opposing forces. It appears that areas where rival forces within the city were fighting to contest control were the most likely to see population outflows from Deir ez-Zor. Areas experiencing unilateral ISIL control saw even larger population outflows, although this effect was not statistically significant.


Researchers tracked the average Normalized Difference Vegetation Index (NDVI) for Deir ez-Zor and its periphery over time since April 2013, and observed two trends. The first is that the intensity of vegetated land in the immediate vicinity of Deir ez-Zor became highly volatile following ISIL's arrival in the city in mid-2014. The seasonal peaks and troughs that represent the growing and harvesting seasons elsewhere in the region were no longer apparent in plots of NDVI over time—perhaps representing significant destruction to the ordinary rhythms of the growing season in Deir ez-Zor. Second, the intensity of vegetated land in the vicinity of Deir ez-Zor was clearly declining over time since early 2015, suggesting decreased crop production overall.

Agricultural activity surrounding Deir ez-Zor is measured using Landsat data on surface reflectance. NDVI allows researchers to differentiate vegetated areas (green) from deserts, built-up areas, or bodies of water (dark blue).

Building Destruction

Understanding how violence might have directly or indirectly affected other indicators of economic activity is especially important in Deir ez-Zor, given the back-and-forth nature of fighting for control over the city center. Crowd-sourced analysis of commercial satellite imagery suggests that a moderate amount of damage was inflicted on Deir ez-Zor's infrastructure well prior to ISIL's arrival in the city, but that destruction in Deir ez-Zor only worsened after ISIL came to town. Of note, the main line of destruction in the city occurred right along the north–south corridor that separates the largely ISIL-held zone in the center of the city and the largely regime-held areas to the west. The next-largest pocket of destruction occurs in the neighborhood on the eastern end of the city that separates this same ISIL-held zone from the regime-held areas to the southeast corner of the city. These levels of damage provide significant insight into earlier findings regarding the extent to which contested areas in Deir ez-Zor show significantly reduced levels of nighttime lighting and population. They also persist over time through 2016, based on researchers' manual analysis of imagery data.

Damage in Deir ez-Zor was evident before ISIL's arrival in the city, but destruction worsened after ISIL came to town.

Market Activity

Researchers examined all markets on average, as well as three specific markets within Deir ez-Zor: the al-Jorah neighborhood market (located predominantly in a regime-held neighborhood), the Cardamom market (in an ISIL-held area), and the al-Takayah street market (in an ISIL-held area). Crowd-sourced estimates of market activity show very clearly that the al-Jorah neighborhood market is more active than either market in ISIL-held neighborhoods. In fact, commercial high-resolution imagery shows almost no signs of activity at either ISIL-held market through the final image in the sample from late 2015. However, both ISIL-held locations are better lit than the al-Jorah market, according to nighttime lighting estimates. This suggests that nighttime lighting is not a perfect proxy for market activity, particularly in that the Cardamom market, once one of Deir ez-Zor’s most active, appears to have been shuttered since as early as 2013, according to DigitalGlobe imagery and publicly available media reporting.


ISIL governance in controlled areas of Deir ez-Zor relied on an early partnership with former local government officials and bureaucrats, who were co-opted into maintaining critical infrastructure on behalf of the group. These initial efforts to consolidate control were bolstered by revenues from confiscation, taxation, and sales of electricity and oil resources from Deir ez-Zor governorate's vast oil reserves. However, more recent publicly available reporting suggests that ISIL was unable to provide the same quality and quantity of public services in parts of the city under its control than it did in other cities, such as Mosul and Raqqah.

Analysis of satellite-derived measures of economic activity in Deir ez-Zor suggests that ISIL was ineffective at governing the neighborhoods and local economies under its control. Despite a relatively steady citywide population, market activity in ISIL-held areas remained paltry while markets in government-held areas of the city appeared to be more active, according to crowd-sourced analysis of satellite imagery. Commercial vehicle traffic was significantly more robust in regime-held areas than in ISIL-held areas, despite the fact that ISIL controls large portions of the Deir ez-Zor countryside. The intensity of agricultural activity on the outskirts of the city appears to have declined over the course of ISIL's presence in the city, according to remote sensing-derived indicators. These data also demonstrate a dramatic fall in nighttime lighting in both ISIL-controlled areas and those controlled by government forces, indicating a surprising inability of ISIL forces to provide fuel for generators within the city despite its proximity to the vast majority of ISIL oil production.

Finally, contested portions of the city also saw statistically significant reductions in population and nighttime lighting relative to those in regime-held areas. This is likely driven by significant levels of destruction in the seams between ISIL-held areas and regime-held areas, according to crowd-sourced estimates of damage in the city. This finding affirms the fact that military opposition to the Islamic State is one of the main drivers of economic stagnation within its spheres of influence.