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CONFIRMED: ISIS defeated in Al-Sukhnah, Syrian army prepares advance on Deir Ezzor

Forces loyal to the Syrian regime stand on a street with national flags after Syria's army and allied forces took full control from rebel groups of the strategic town of Salma, in the northwestern province of Latakia on January 12, 2016. In a breaking news flash, state television reported that the army, backed by the pro-government National Defence Forces militia, had also seized hilltops surrounding the town. / AFP / STRINGER

A few hours after news of the sudden collapse of ISIS resistance in Al-Sukhnah comes confirmation from the Syrian military that the town is now fully liberated from ISIS and that all surviving ISIS fighters have fled from there.

As is becoming the pattern in the Syrian war, this confirmation in English has first appeared in a report carried by the highly reliable and well-informed Al-Masdar news agency, which through an entirely independent and private agency is now practically functioning as a semi-official news agency for the Syrian military.  Certainly Al-Masdar’s battlefield reporting is consistently more reliable and faster than that provided by the English language service of Syria’s official news agency SANA, which as of the time of writing has still not reported the liberation of Al-Sukhnah.

That Al-Sukhnah has indeed been liberated is however on Al-Masdar’s past record indisputable, and the wording of Al-Masdar’s report of the town’s liberation in fact puts the matter beyond doubt.

Al-Sukhnah’s liberation from ISIS – two years after its capture by ISIS from the Syrian army in May 2015, during the battles which resulted in ISIS’s first capture of Palmyra – now opens the way for the Syrian army to advance to Deir Ezzor.

The distance from Al-Sukhnah to Deir Ezzor city at 110 kilometres is still very long in terms of the distances of the Syrian war.   Though the terrain is much easier and flatter than the terrain covered by the road from Palmyra to Al-Sukhnah, the Syrian army must take into account the fact that it is now approaching the territory where ISIS has concentrated most of its fighters, and where its leadership is based.  ISIS’s supply lines are therefore becoming much shorter, at the same time as the Syrian army’s supply lines to its main bases in western Syria are becoming much longer.

That makes an over rapid advance along this road vulnerable to counter-attack and flanking attacks by ISIS, with ISIS repeatedly showing great skill in moving columns of its fighters rapidly across desert territory.

Against that the advancing Syrian column will be accompanied by Russian drones and Russian aircraft providing the Syrian troops with intelligence about the area they are advancing through and of the territory along their flanks, as well as with ground support.

Russian MI-28 helicopter gunships have apparently been seen participating in the fighting for Al-Sukhnah and there are reports that the Russian Aerospace Forces are now using Syria’s giant Tiyas air base in central Syria to support the Syrian offensive, with claims that three Russian SU-25 ground attack aircraft have been spotted there.

That ought to make it more difficult for ISIS to concentrate its fighters and to launch surprise attacks on the advancing Syrian troops than was the case earlier in the war, before the Russians came, when ISIS scored most of its successes.

The Syrian army will nonetheless prepare carefully before the advance on Deir Ezzor resumes.  A first step will be to consolidate control of Al-Sukhnah itself, clearing the town of the large number of ‘IEDs’ (‘improvised explosive devices’ – ie. booby traps) and land mines which Al-Masdar reports the ISIS fighters left behind them when they retreated from the town.

Al-Sukhnah will also have to be secured against possible counter-attack by ISIS, and this may require more troops from western Syria to be sent there.

Probably it will take at least a week – possibly much longer – before the Syrian army’s advance on Deir Ezzor can resume.  However when it does the way to Deir Ezzor is now open.

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