After reaching the foot of the Jabal Hayyal mountain on Friday, Syrian troops have captured its summit.
This now puts the Syrian army in a position overlooking Palmyra, which it is now able to dominate with its artillery.
The highly reliable Al-Masdar news agency, which obtains many of its reports from the Syrian army, also reports that Syrian troops
have taken control of the Quarries area northwest of Palmyra in what appears to be a pincer manuever much similar to the 1st Palmyra offensive back in March, 2016
Al-Masdar has also provided a list of the forces which the Syrian military has assembled to capture Palmyra
Leading this offensive is the Russian-trained 5th Legion, the 18th Tank Division, Military Shield Forces, Al-Badia branch, Shaitat tribesmen alongside the National Defence Forces. Further reinforcements are expected to arrive in the coming days as government forces build up for a full-scale assault on Palmyra.
The Fifth Legion was formally set up by the Syrian military in November last year as an all volunteer force. The Syrian military’s announcement setting up the Fifth Legion reads as follows
In response to the rapid developments for events, to reinforce the successes of the intrepid armed forces and heeding the desire of our defiant people to put an end to the terrorist acts upon the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic, the General Command for the Army announces the formation of the Fifth Legion- Assault, from volunteers, with the mission of destroying terrorism alongside the rest of the formations of our heroic armed forces and the auxiliary and allied forces to restore security and stability to all the lands of the Syrian Arab Republic. The General Command for the Army and the Armed Forces calls on all citizens who desire to participate in realising the final victory over terrorism to go to the reception centres in the provinces.
Inevitably reports by commentators and agencies hostile to the Syrian government call the Fifth Legion a Shia militia force supposedly set up by General Qassem Soleimani of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and numbering an impossible 70,000 men.
General Soleimani, is a tough and redoubtable commander who is Iran’s point man in Iraq and Syria. He has undoubtedly played a key role in the Iraqi and Syrian wars, with rumour often placing him near the front lines. He was definitely present in Aleppo during the later stages of the fighting there, and pictures of him have appeared touring eastern Aleppo after it was retaken from Al-Qaeda.
Jihadi folklore has however elevated General Soleimani to a mythological status, making him into a sort of all-purpose Shia bogeyman, and unfortunately some of this legend has been taken up uncritically by some Western commentators. There is nothing in fact to connect General Soleimani to the Syrian army’s Fifth Legion, the setting up of which appears to have been a purely Syrian initiative.
it is in fact clear from the announcement setting it up that the Fifth Legion is not a militia at all but is a part of the Syrian armed forces operating within the Syrian army’s chain of command. There is nothing in the announcement creating it that identifies it as a Shia unit. As it happens it seems that the Fifth Legion was formed around several pre-existing smaller units of the Syrian army, though since its creation it appears to have been recruiting heavily across all the areas of Syria that are under the control of the Syrian government.
Al-Masdar claims the Fifth Legion is Russian trained, which if true would mean that there are Russian officers attached to it. There is no word as to how big it is, but it is unlikely to number more than a few thousand men.
The Fifth Legion and the Syrian army’s 18th Tank Division make up the core of the force that is now preparing to storm Palmyra. Though Al-Masdar says nothing about them, there are known to be Russian Special Forces also present in the area.
It seems that the final assault to drive ISIS out of Palmyra is now imminent.