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Syrian army ‘planning to surround’ remaining ISIS fighters north west of Al-Sukhnah

That the Syrian army’s capture of Al-Sukhnah is a devastating blow to ISIS is shown by the attempt ISIS made just a few hours later to recapture the town.  The Al-Masdar news agency however reports that ISIS’s counter-attack was repulsed with heavy losses, leaving the Syrian army in secure control of the town.

Yesterday I speculated that the Syrian army would hold back from advancing further east on Deir Ezzor until its hold on Al-Sukhnah is fully consolidated.  Whilst this is basically correct, it seems that the form of this “consolidation” is rather more ambitious – and may take rather longer – than I had imagined.

It seems that the Syrian army’s immediate plan is not to advance east from Al-Sukhnah to Deir Ezzor, but to march north from Al-Sukhnah to link up with the Syrian army’s northern column which recently liberated Resafa.  Here is how Al-Masdar explains it

Led by the 5th Corps, the Syrian Arab Army pushed north from Al-Sukhnah this afternoon, attacking the Islamic State’s positions near the towns of Al-Kom and Taybah.

With help from their Russian allies, the Syrian Arab Army captured several points from the Islamic State forces, killing and wounding several terrorists in the process.

According to a military source in Palmyra, the Syrian Army is attempting to link up with the Tiger Forces at the strategic town of Resafa, which is located in the Al-Raqqa Governorate.

If this attack proves successful, the Syrian Arab Army will be to cutoff the Islamic State’s supply line to central Syria and shrink the terrorist group’s pocket in the eastern countryside of Hama.

 The plan is to cut off a large area of ISIS controlled territory in north central Syria, accelerating ISIS’s collapse in this area.  This map – released shortly before Al-Sukhnah was liberated – gives a good idea of what is apparently being planned

This plan is less ambitious than appears from this map.  Whilst a link-up between the Syrian troops now holding Al-Sukhnah with the Syrian troops currently encamped just south of Resafa in the north would in theory encircle a large area of ISIS held territory to the west – cutting off the ISIS fighters there from resupply by trapping them in what the Russians call a ‘cauldron’ – in practice the number of ISIS fighters in this territory is probably small, and ISIS’s leadership will probably withdraw them before they become trapped.

That may however actually suit the Syrian army.  Better from their point of view that ISIS withdraws its fighters from this developing ‘cauldron’ than that the Syrian army be obliged to commit its limited resources to sustaining the ‘cauldron’ around them for a lengthy period, and to tracking them all down and killing them inside it.

A relatively short advance by the Syrian troops, converging from Resafa in the north and from Al-Sukhnah in the south to the town of Al-Taybah which lies between them, might therefore deliver a large area of territory currently controlled by ISIS to the west back to the Syrian government’s control, radically shortening the Syrian army’s front lines and ending whatever danger to Palmyra from ISIS fighters still in this area.

Presumably it will only be after this happens that the advance on Deir Ezzor from Al-Sukhnah will resume

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