One of the most ambitious military operations launched over the course of the Syria war is now rapidly approaching its climax, with news today that Syrian troops advancing from Resafa in the north and from Al-Sukhnah in the south have largely succeeded in surrounding ISIS fighters in a large stretch territory in central Syria east of Salamiyah, an important government held town in Hama province.
This operation to trap ISIS fighters in what is now essentially a pocket or – using Russian military parlance – a ‘cauldron’ has been underway ever since the strategically important town of Al-Sukhnah in central Syria was captured a week ago.
A good idea of the nature of this pocket or ‘cauldron’ can be obtained from this map published by the Al-Masdar news agency.
Some words of caution are in order.
The Al-Masdar map gives an impression of a territory wholly surrounded on all sides by Syrian troops.
This is an exaggeration. As is always the case in the Syrian war, the Syrian army simply does not have the necessary number of troops to carry out a total encirclement of this sort. It is not even confirmed that the Syrian troops advancing from Resafa in the north and from Al-Sukhnah in the south have actually met with each other.
A more accurate way of describing what has happened is that the Syrian army has now gained control of all the main roads leading into and out of the pocket, and that all the towns and villages surrounding the pocket now accept the authority of the Syrian government.
This makes it all but impossible for large columns of ISIS fighters to enter or leave the pocket, or to be resupplied there.
Indeed movement of large groups of ISIS fighters is now also difficult, as their movements are now being constantly tracked by Russian and Syrian aircraft and Russian aerial drones which are patrolling the skies above the pocket.
Obviously individual or small groups of ISIS fighters can still move around or enter or leave the pocket, and over the new few days or weeks some may try to do so. However Syrian troops and militia located around the pocket will be alert to precisely this danger, and will aim to track hunt down any ISIS fighters who try to enter or leave.
Indeed there were even reports back in February that the Russians have trained a special Syrian army unit named significantly the “ISIS Hunters” for precisely this role, a fact which incidentally shows how carefully the Syrian army’s operations over the last few months have been planned.
According to Syrian troops interviewed by CNN many of the ISIS fighters trapped in the pocket had previously fled there from ISIS’s former capital of Raqqa, which is now in the process of being liberated by the US backed Kurdish militia.
Many of these ISIS fighters are said to be very young, and to be putting up a fanatical resistance, still launching hit-and-run attacks on the main highway south from Aleppo whenever they can, as they have in fact been doing from this area for years.
Fully securing this highway – which ISIS and AL-Qaeda led Jihadi fighters actually managed to cut in the weeks before the Russian intervened in Syria in September 2015 – is an urgent priority for the Syrian government, and explains the high priority given to this operation.
According to the reports which have been appearing in the Al-Masdar news agency and in other Middle East media for the last few weeks, the chief ISIS stronghold inside the pocket is the town of ‘Uqayrbat.
With the main roads offering the main escape routes from the pocket now closed, the Syrian military apparently expects the ISIS fighters trapped in the pocket to fall back and concentrate on ‘Uqayrbat.
The capture of this town will therefore be a major operation, which when completed will signal the final success of the Syrian army’s operation to eliminate ISIS completely in central Syria.