Latest reports from the fighting in Syria speak of an intense battle between the Syrian army and ISIS for control of the central Syrian town of Al-Sukhnah on the main highway between Palmyra and Deir Ezzor.
Ten days ago the Syrian army appeared confident that it would storm Al-Sukhnah with little difficulty. It is now clear however that the Syrian army seriously underestimated ISIS’s determination to hold onto the town.
ISIS’s determination to hold on to Al-Sukhnah is undoubtedly driven by recognition that Al-Sukhnah is the last important point of resistance standing between the Syrian army and the besieged eastern city of Deir Ezzor, even if tens of kilometres of desert road lie between them. For that reason ISIS – which has redeployed many of its fighters and most of its leadership to Deir Ezzor province – appears to have resolved to hold on to Al-Sukhnah at all costs.
With the Syrian army gradually enveloping Al-Sukhnah this is likely to prove for ISIS a costly strategy, with the lives of many of its fighters sacrificed to hold on to the town. However given the increasingly desperate situation in which ISIS finds itself, it does makes a kind of sense.
Regardless, the result is that for the moment the Syrian army’s fight to capture Al-Sukhnah has stalled, with the Syrian army said to have suffered heavy casualties in its attempt to storm the town.
Meanwhile there are the first indications that with ISIS throwing more and more of its fighters into the fight for Al-Sukhnah, ISIS’s pressure on the Syrian garrison defending Deir Ezzor is slackening.
The Syrian troops defending Deir Ezzor have been on the defensive ever since a US air raid on their positions last September enabled ISIS to break their main defence line protecting the town. The situation then deteriorated further last winter when ISIS successfully severed the communications between the Syrian garrison inside the town and the town’s airport. Since then ISIS has surrounded both the town and the airport, with the Syrian troops defending both places under severe siege.
Since the winter repeated attempts by the Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor to break through ISIS’s lines to the airport and to link up once with the Syrian troops there have been unsuccessful. With road access to the airport lost, and with the close proximity of ISIS fighters to the airport’s runway making the landing of fixed wing aircraft there impossible, the Syrian troops defending both Deir Ezzor itself and the airport have had to be resupplied by helicopter, in a perilous journey carried out usually at night.
Recently however a minor attack by the Syrian garrison in Deir Ezzor against the ISIS fighters occupying the town’s cemetery – whose recapture is essential if road links between the town and the airport are to be restored – met with unexpected success, suggesting that many of the best ISIS fighters defending the cemetery have been redeployed to other fronts, especially to Al-Sukhnah. The Syrian troops in Deir Ezzor now appear to be preparing to build on this unexpected success by making a renewed attempt to recapture the whole cemetery.
Regardless of what happens in Deir Ezzor, the Syrian army’s recapture of Al-Sukhnah is only a matter of time. Probably the fight there will be over within the next few days. If so the Syrian army’s advance towards Deir Ezzor will resume at a faster pace.