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DEVELOPING: Syrian army ‘less than 20 km from Palmyra’

The Russian General Staff has commented on the progress army as it continues offensive in central Syria against ISIS.

Starting in December ISIS launched a major offensive in central and eastern Syria.  This captured Palmyra and a belt of gas fields west of Palmyra, and also involved a major attack on the besieged eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor.

The Syrian army’s counter offensive began in earnest at the end of January, but has been slow to develop as the Syrian army has been obliged to deploy some of its best troops elsewhere in Syria, for example against ISIS in the strategically important town of Al-Bab, and against Al-Qaeda in Wadi Barada near Damascus.  The Syrian army’s counter offensive against ISIS in central Syria, and the Syrian garrison’s defence of Deir Ezzor against ISIS, have however been supported by heavy bombing by the Russian air force, including by TU22M3 medium bombers flying from Russia.

Recently there have also been reports that Russian Special Forces have also been deployed to the area around Palmyra.  This comes shortly after reports that the Syrian army has deployed its elite Desert Hawks unit to the same area.  The report from Al-Masdar discusses the scale and purpose of the deployments

A convoy of Russian special forces arrived in the western countryside of Palmyra on Saturday evening after traveling from the coastal city of Jableh, a military source in east Homs told Al-Masdar News.

These soldiers from the Russian special forces will be tasked with advising the newly formed 5th Legion of the Syrian Arab Army as they attempt to liberate the Hayyan Gas Fields some 40km west of Palmyra.

According to the same military source, two large convoys of Syrian Arab Army soldiers also traveled to the western countryside of Palmyra from the Latakia Governorate this weekend; these units numbered well over 1,000 personnel.

In the coming days, the Syrian Arab Army, alongside Hezbollah, will launch another massive offensive in western Palmyra in order to retake the imperative gas fields that are currently under the Islamic State’s control.

Though Al-Masdar is careful to avoid mentioning the city of Palmyra – a consistent feature of Syrian news reports from the area, and one which is apparently intended to emphasise Palmyra’s lack of military importance – there is no doubt that its recapture is a high priority, and is part of the plan for the offensive.

The Russian General Staff has now spoken of the progress of the Syrian troops near Palmyra.

The Syrian government troops are continuing their offensive towards Palmyra with the support of Russia’s aviation. A distance of less than 20 km remains to be covered. Over the past week, Russian warplanes have conducted over 90 sorties in the Palmyra direction….Overall, the Syrian government troops have liberated 805 square kilometres of the territory in the province of Homs from terrorists of the [ISIS] since they launched their operation with the support of the Russian air task force

News of the Syrian army’s advance, its closeness to Palmyra, and of the deployment of Russian Special Forces to the area has – understandably enough – provoked some excitement in Moscow, with Dmitry Peskov, President Putin’s spokesman, being asked to comment.  Very properly he refused to say anything about the plans for Palmyra’s liberation

I cannot tell you anything about the strategy or tactic of the operation in Syria

When ISIS was driven out of Palmyra in March 2016 the organisation chose not to defend its positions in the town.  Also it turned out that the damage it had done to the antiquities – though extensive – was less than expected.

It remains to be seen whether on this occasion ISIS decides to quit Palmyra quite so quietly.

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