In contrast to what happened after the capture of Palmyra in March 2016, the Syrian army has been pressing on with its offensive against ISIS positions near Palmyra since its recent recapture of the city.
Most of the focus has been on gaining control of mountain areas north of Palmyra, which were used by ISIS in December as its launch point for its second capture of the city.
There is growing speculation that once the territory around Palmyra has been fully secured, the Syrian army will finally launch its offensive to lift the siege of the eastern desert city of Deir Ezzor.
On 23rd February 2017 an article appeared in the US based Middle East affairs website Al Monitor which claimed on the strength of information provided by Lebanese sources that following the first liberation of Palmyra in March 2016 there was disagreement between the Syrian government and the Russians about what to do next. Supposedly the Russians wanted to focus on fighting ISIS and sought to press on from Palmyra to Deir Ezzor, but the Syrian government instead insisted on liberating eastern Aleppo first.
Here is what Al Monitor reported
According to pro-government sources in Beirut, the Syrian government and its allies have not been in agreement over what to do with Deir ez-Zor. The Syrian government, Iran and Hezbollah wanted to focus first on recapturing Aleppo, pointing out that other battles should be prioritized to secure the government’s control over Syrian territory, while others, such as the Russians, wanted to continue northward to Deir ez-Zor after the liberation of Palmyra in March 2016, keen to show the world they are serious about their fight against IS.
“[President Bashar] Assad and Iran seem to have been consistently more interested in the heavily populated core territories of western Syria and in breaking the foreign-backed segments of the rebellion, which they see as a greater strategic threat,” said Lund. “Objectively speaking, they are right, but things may look differently if you’re in Moscow and they must certainly look very different if you have the misfortune of being trapped inside Deir ez-Zor.”
This article undoubtedly overstates what happened. In reality it because increasingly clear following the failure of the February 2016 ceasefire that large Jihadi forces were being assembled with US backing to attack Aleppo. Defeating that attack and securing Aleppo would have been as much a priority for the Russians as it was for the Syrians.
However the Al Monitor article is undoubtedly correct when it says that the Russians have always given much greater priority to liberating and securing Palmyra and defeating ISIS in Deir Ezzor than the Syrian government has. For the Syrian government these are peripheral regions far from the key areas of western Syria it needs to hold in order to secure its survival, whilst for the Russians Palmyra is a site of tremendous cultural and historic significance (their second capital, St. Petersburg, is sometimes called “the Palmyra of the North”), whilst the fight against ISIS is the single most important reason why Russia intervened in Syria in the first place.
The distance between the Syrian army’s most easterly troops near Palmyra and Deir Ezzor is huge – over 150 kilometres – and travel between the two cities is over difficult desert country with ISIS heavily entrenched on both flanks. The sparse population of the area however exposes any ISIS forces which attempt to halt a Syrian army advance from Palmyra to Deir Ezzor to attack by the Russian air force, especially by the advanced KA-52 and MI-28 helicopter gunship helicopters that the Russians are said to be forward positioning in the area.
It seems that the Russians have also specifically trained the Syrian Army’s recently created 5th Legion for this advance. Since this is a relatively new formation,which however spearheaded the Syrian army’s offensive which recently liberated Palmyra, it may be that it is intended to advance towards Deir Ezzor as well, without draining the Syrian army of the resources it needs to fight elsewhere.
With the situation in Deir Ezzor remaining critical, there is no doubt the Syrian troops and civilians surrounded by ISIS there are in urgent need of rescue. The next few weeks will show whether the Russians and the Syrian army’s 5th Legion are indeed committed to providing it.