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Syrian army “just 700 metres” from ISIS-held Al-Sukhnah as final battle for Deir Ezzor approaches

According to the reliable and well-informed Al-Masdar news agency, the Syrian military is now just 700 metres from the “city gates” of the key ISIS held town of Al-Sukhnah on the road from Palmyra to Deir Ezzor.

Here is Al-Masdar’s latest report

Led by the 5th Corps and 18th Tank Division, the Syrian Arab Army stormed the western outskirts of Al-Sukhnah this morning, while receiving heavy air support from their Russian allies.

According to a military source in Palmyra, the Syrian Arab Army is steadily advancing on the Islamic State stronghold, leaving only 700 meters between their front-lines and the city’s gates.

Despite the recent gains, the Syrian Army has been struggling to break the Islamic State’s main line of defense west of Al-Sukhnah, as the terrorist group uses the rough terrain to their advantage.

It is not clear exactly what “the city gates” of Al-Sukhnah means exactly.  However Al-Sukhnah is an old city with an Ottoman fort, which before the fall of the Ottoman empire used to house an Ottoman garrison.  One way of reading this Al-Masdar report is that the Syrian army has successfully stormed the the town’s western suburbs but that ISIS is holding out in this fort.

An Al-Masdar report of 24th July 2017 reported that Al-Sukhnah was just a week from being liberated by the Syrian army.  It is now clear that this will not happen as ISIS resistance has stiffened as the Syrian army advances deeper into ISIS held territory in Deir Ezzor province, and as the Syrian army – after its whirlwind advances on multiple fronts of the previous weeks – has focused on consolidating its gains by bringing up reinforcements and strengthening its supply lines.

This pattern of lighting advances followed by pauses and consolidations as enemy resistance stiffens is very typical of “blitzkrieg” war, as any student of the history of the Second World War in Europe knows.

The recent slow down in the Syrian army’s offensives into central and eastern Syria is however likely to be only temporary.

On the northern front in southern Raqqa attempts by ISIS to wrest back the initiative from the Syrian by staging ‘do-or-die’ counter-attacks have all ended in failure, with the Syrian army’s elite Tiger Forces – who are leading the Syrian army’s advance in this area – having successfully penetrated into Deir Ezzor province.

The British journalist Robert Fisk has recently toured the Syrian army’s northern front and he has provided a glowing account of its performance there for the British newspaper the Independent, which includes lengthy and highly informative passages likes this one

The highway east from Homs was expected to have been the route of the Syrian attack this month. Hence the vast earth “berms” and defensive sand walls erected by Isis along the length of the road. But for Isis, the now-infamous Syrian army tactic of assaulting its enemies from the rear and flank drove the caliphate from hundreds of square miles of land west of the Euphrates.

General Saleh, the one-legged commander of the Syrian division on the Euphrates – who has adapted this policy many times, along with his fellow officer and friend, Colonel “Tiger” Suheil – says that his forces could, if he wished, be in the centre of Raqqa within five hours “if we decided to do that”. He described how his men had first driven al-Qaeda and Isis from the Sheikh Najjar industrial city outside Aleppo back to the Assad lake, how they had protected the water supply to the city at great loss to their own forces, how they had moved east from the Koyeress airbase to capture Deir Hafer and Meskane and other towns in the Aleppo countryside – and then suddenly surged south east, south of the Euphrates towards Raqqa.

“Our forces are now seven miles from the Euphrates between Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour, 14 miles from the centre of Raqqa and 10 miles from the old Thabqa airbase,” the general almost shouted. “How many Daesh did we kill? I don’t care. I am not interested. Daesh, Nusrah, al-Qaeda, they are all terrorists. Their deaths do not matter. It’s war.”

But, I suggested to General Saleh – because I had been studying my sand-blasted maps and had listened to many a military lecture in Damascus of late – surely his next target would be not Raqqa (already partly invested by American-backed forces) but the huge surrounded Syrian garrison city of Deir ez-Zour with its thousands of trapped civilians.

“Our President has said we will recover every square inch of Syria,” the general replied, repeating the mantra of all Syrian officers of the regime. “Why do you say Deir ez-Zour?” Because, I said, that would release the 10,000 Syrian soldiers in the city to fight on the war front. There was just a hint of a grin on the officer’s face, but then it faded. In fact, I don’t think the Syrians will get involved with the American-supported force fighting for Raqqa – that, after all, was the point of the little “coordination” centre I saw in the desert – but I do believe the Syrian army are heading for Deir ez-Zour. As for the general, of course, he was saying nothing about this. Nor, obviously, did he believe in body counts.

There is, in reality, another intriguing tactic being deployed by the Syrian administration. The local Rif Raqqa governor – “rif” indicates the countryside around a city, not to be confused with the town itself – is now setting up headquarters near General Saleh’s caravan. It’s a real campaign caravan, by the way, which rocks when you step aboard, his office and bedroom combined in one small room, his black walking stick by the bed-head. The local governor, however, is scarcely a mile away, planning the restoration of water and electricity supplies, the financing of public works and relief for refugees.

When I left the area, 29 families – cartloads of children and black-shrouded women and upturned sofas – had just arrived in Rasafeh from Deir ez-Zour to seek the Raqqa governor’s assistance. Another 50 had arrived the previous day. It seemed perfectly obvious that if the Syrian army lets America’s largely Kurdish friends occupy Raqqa, it is going to help the Syrian government civilian administration take over the city by the force of bureaucracy. How would that be for a bloodless victory?

But military self-confidence is often the handmaiden of misadventure. The highway that forms the tip of the Homs-Aleppo triangle has now been extended 60 miles to Resafeh, and General Saleh makes no secret that Isis and its fellow cultists return across the desert after dark to attack his soldiers. These men – many of whom are teenagers – are billeted in tent encampments beside the road, protected by tanks and anti-aircraft guns. And their battles are constant, Isis still placing IED bombs beside the highway today. When I later travelled across the desert to Homs, I followed for some time a truck carrying a 155mm artillery piece so overused that its barrel had split apart.

Yet already, Syrian engineers are restoring electricity capacity from the desert generating stations which have only recently been hideouts for Isis leaders, a power system intimately connected to the Syrian oil fields, slowly being recovered from the Isis enemy, which remain – modest though they are in comparison with the great Gulf, Iraqi and Iranian oil resources – Syria’s “pearl in the desert”. Who controls these wealth machines – how their product will be shared now it has been freed from the Isis mafia – will determine part of Syria’s future political history.

This report provides an interesting insight into Russian and Syrian government thinking on the Kurdish question.

As Robert Fisk has seen for himself political tensions between the Kurdish leadership and the Syrian government are belied by Russian brokered cooperation between the Kurdish and Syrian militaries on the ground.

For the moment the Syrian government has decided – probably following Russian and perhaps Iranian advice – to work with the Kurds in the area rather than against them, whilst using the time provided by Kurds’ focus on fighting ISIS in Raqqa to rebuild the Syrian state’s administrative structures in the area.

The calculation appears to be that once the Kurds have finally ousted ISIS from Raqqa they will have to look to the Syrian government to provide the essential services necessary for the successful administration of  this large Arab (not Kurdish) populated area.  The Syrian government apparently hopes that this will give it decisive leverage in its future negotiations with the Kurds.

Putting aside the tangled question of the future settlement of the Kurdish question, and notwithstanding Robert Fisk’s wise words about the dangers of over-confidence, it is clear that the Syrian army now holds a decisive advantage over ISIS in this area, even if General Saleh’s boast that he could be at the centre of Raqqa in five hours if given the order should not be taken too seriously.

Despite the Syrian army’s extraordinary march across northern Syria, and its recent penetration from southern Raqqa into Deir Ezzor province – which is rapidly becoming ISIS’s last major territorial bastion in Syria – it remains likely that the main advance on Deir Ezzor will not come from the north but from the west ie. along the main road from Palmyra through Al-Sukhnan to Deir Ezzor.

Though neither the Syrians nor the Russians say it openly, the primary purpose of the Syrian army’s advance across southern Raqqa province to the Euphrates river was probably not to prepare the ground for an advance on Deir Ezzor from there but to prevent the Kurds at the US’s instigation from doing that very thing.

That presumably explains General Saleh’s refusal to be drawn by Robert Fish into talking of an advance by his troops towards Deir Ezzor.  General Saleh refused to tell Robert Fisk that he was preparing to do such a thing because that is almost certainly not the plan.

With the Syrian army having apparently now reached the Euphrates river – at least in some places – it seems that this part of the Syrian army’s mission may in large measure have been successfully accomplished.

The focus therefore is on the fighting at Al-Sukhnah.

Though it is clear that the battle for the town is fierce, once it is captured the last major urban centre between the Syrian army and Deir Ezzor will have been taken.  Though on a map the distance between Al-Sukhnah and Deir Ezzor looks greater than the distance between Al-Sukhnah and Palmyra, the road from Palmyra to Al-Sukhnah crosses rugged and easily defended country, whilst east of Al-Sukhnah the country becomes flatter and more open, and better adapted to a rapid advance by motorised troops.

That of course is why ISIS is defending its positions in Al-Sukhnah so fiercely, and why the expectations of some people in the Syrian military of a week ago that the town would be liberated quickly have not so far been fulfilled.

The latest Al-Masdar report however points to the final liberation of Al-Sukhnah being no more than days or possibly even hours away.

If so then the final climactic battle between the Syrian army and ISIS in Deir Ezzor leading to the collapse of ISIS’s Caliphate will begin.

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