Saturday, 23 May 2015

The Islamic State’s Spring Offensive: The Capture of Al-Sukhna

By Stijn Mitzer

Al-Sukhna, a small yet vital town in the middle of the vast Syrian desert, was captured by the Islamic State (IS) in a swift, unexpected one-day long offensive on the 13th of May 2015. While the fighters of the Free Syrian Army, Jaish al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (still known as ISIS at the time) had already captured the strategically located village back in October 2013, they never succeeded in holding it for long, and al-Sukhna was back under government-control after just one week.

While the largely Sunni town of al-Sukhna itself isn't home to any important military sites, and military presence had previously only been negligible, the town is located next to the highly important M20 highway, making it a crucial link in the road running all the way from Damascus to Tadmur (Palmyra) and ultimately Deir ez-Zor. This highway is absolutely vital for the government as it allows for resupplying its troops in Deir ez-Zor, and without control of the road, the regime won't be able to continue its struggle to keep it out of IS's hands, making the fall of the city a plausible reality.

The town, much like Tadmur, also serves as an important link in the production and distribution of a large portion of Syria's gas supplies. As the Islamic State is now occupying both Tadmur and al-Sukhna, it has easy access to and thus control over the numerous gas fields and pipelines running through the area, denying the government much-needed resources.


While the regime quickly recaptured al-Sukhna back in October 2013, it remains to be seen if the National Defence Force (NDF) and Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons) have the manpower, resources and equipment to establish a new line of defence and hold off the Islamic State's advance in Central Syria after the fall of Tadmur, let alone to once again retake the area. The victory at al-Sukhna and Tadmur will likely decide the ultimate fate not only of Central and Eastern Syria, but also might have far-reaching consequences on the regime's grip on Homs and Damascus.

Tadmur (Palmyra) and al-Sukhna are both claimed by the Islamic State as part of the Wilayat al-Badiya province, but after the Islamic State withdrew most of its troops from the region in the summer of 2014, their (at the time still limited) reign in the region largely ended, and Wilayat al-Badiya was unofficially incorporated in the Wilayat Homs province.

Wilayat al-Badiya de-facto thus ceased to exist, and the Islamic State ceased its offensive in the region to focus on other, then more important, frontiers. The months that followed did see a series of renewed fierce clashes between Islamic State, the NDF and Suqour al-Sahraa' throughout Central Syria. Heavily supported by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), the NDF and Suqour al-Sahraa' managed to push the Islamic State away from the outskirts of Syria's most important airbase: T.4, home of the SyAAF's dreaded Su-24MK2s.

These clashes symbolise the situation in Central Syria, where government -controlled towns, gasfields and military bases were only defended by small numbers of NDF and SyAA soldiers, the latter manning the heavy weaponry attached to the NDF. The fact that it is nigh on impossible to completely control the vast Syrian desert, combined with the dire lack of soldiers, means the regime is forced to rely on very light mobile units to stop IS fighters before they reach the often ill-defended but strategically important towns and gasfields.

Patrols conducted by Suqour al-Sahraa' and the SyAAF's SA-342 'Gazelles' were the regime's first line of defence in Central Syria. Tasked with finding the Islamic State's convoys travelling through the vast Syrian desert, reinforcements were called in when such a convoy was spotted. More Suqour al-Sahraa' fighters, fighter-bombers, helicopters were sent in to destroy the convoys. This tactic had so far paid off, but should just one IS convoy make it through undetected, the result can be devastating: al-Sukhna being a case in point.

The failed offensive on T.4 had somewhat calmed the situation in Central Syria, meaning the Islamic State's recent offensive caught the regime's troops in Central Syria completely off-guard. As there were no reinforcements available anywhere close, they simply collapsed under this unexpected pressure. It seems likely that even IS didn't expect to push through the regime's defences in Central Syria so easily. Especially when considering the fact that IS is still publishing media in the area through the Wilayat Homs outlet, indicating that the Islamic State had not even planned a new administration for Wilayat al-Badiya. Of course, with the recents gains in Central Syria, it might now reappear as an independent province.

Tasked with the defence of al-Sukha was the NDF, mostly consisting of Alawites from Homs, and a limited number of fighters from Suqour al-Sahraa', further strenghtened by a detachment of handful T-72M1s from the 18th Tank Batallion of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA) stationed in Tadmur. The various checkpoints littered around the town were manned by the NDF while the higher ground was held by a contingent from Suqour al-Sahraa'. Contrary to what has often been observed during the conflict, the T-72M1s were not used as static pillboxes, but rather utilised as a quick-reaction force deployed in between the defender's positions.

Fire support for the IS fighters appear to have consisted of three tanks (one T-55, one T-62 and one T-72M1), a number of technicals, one 122mm D-30, various 122mm DIY MRLs, a number of mortars and ATGMs. Most of the heavy weaponry was brought in on tank trailers and unloaded just outside the town before the assault begun. A video covering the assault can be seen here (WARNING: GRAPHIC).

The amount of IS fighters involved in the offensive is not believed to have been higher than a few hundred, and were seperated into two groups, one tasked with storming the checkpoints, while the other group was to provide fire-support for the former. In an effort to help the latter group distinguish the assaulting IS fighters from regime forces, the first group wore blue head bands.

As is nowadays often the case during the Islamic State's offensives, its fighters made clever use of UAVs to scout the positions of the defenders before initiating the assault. These positions were subsequently targetted with heavy weapons, keeping government forces pinned down and unable to return fire. As an unsurprising result of this heavy supressive fire most of casualties on the side of the Islamic State were likely suffered as a direct result of the close quarters combat that followed the storming.

The first defensive position that was overrun was that of Suqour al-Sahraa'. The majority of the soldiers stationed here fled to the remaining checkpoints, and in usual disorderly SyAA fashion, left the heavy weaponry looking out over the town intact. Now aimed at their former operators, the captured 107mm MRL and 122mm D-30 were immediately put to use and hit the remaining regime positions shortly thereafter.

The detachment of T-72M1s, now fully aware of the assault, rushed to the remaining regime-held ground to aid in the defence of the checkpoints. Apparently aware of the presence of several tanks, IS fighters set up positions on the high ground overlooking the checkpoints, and subsequently ambushed and destroyed the two T-72M1s with 9M113 Konkurs and MILAN F2 ATGMs. The impact of the 9M113 was strong enough to cause the main gun of the T-72M1 to fire, while the MILAN hit completely destroyed the other T-72, causing the turret to fly off.

This sight must have demoralised the remaining regime forces to such an extent that they abandoned their positions and ran away on foot. Unfortunately for these fleeing regime forces, IS fighters already took position next to their escape route, resulting in a turkey shoot with many casualties under the defendless government forces.

In this manner the offensive, lasting not more than a few hours, ended the regime's presence in al-Sukhna. In hindsight, it is obvious that the defenders never had any real, sound plan to keep the town from falling, and were definitely not prepared to fight until the end for it. The fact that al-Sukhna was of very high strategic importance makes this knowledge all the more astounding.

The first effects of the fall of al-Sukhna will indubitably be felt in Deir ez-Zor, where regime forces continue to battle Islamic State for control of the largest city in Eastern Syria. The situation for the NDF, the SyAA and the 104th Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard, which, despite rumours to the contrary, is still present in Deir ez-Zor, has suddenly turned for the worse now that the vitally important M20 highway has been lost to the Islamic State. Together with a limited airbridge, the road was the regime's only way of resupplying its forces in Deir ez-Zor.

Indeed, as the SyAAF's transport aircraft are mostly unable to transport heavy weaponry, government forces in Deir ez-Zor now have no means to replace any damaged or destroyed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery or MRLs, which were previously all brought in via the M20 highway.

Even though the contingent defending al-Sukhna only had access to a limited number of heavy weapons, the capture of the town also proved to be quite profitable in terms of spoils of war. Although underwelming compared to some of the Islamic State's previous scores, the captured weaponry will certainly aid the Islamic State in any future offensives in Central and Eastern Syria. As is often seen, the amount of weaponry that was available to the defenders far surpassed their needs and capabilities.

Captured weaponry mainly included small arms and ammunitions, but also a few technicals, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs).

The IS fighters involved in the capture of al-Sukhna later participated in the Tadmur offensive, and if the current upmarch (that has also seen the fall of Tadmur, T.3 pumping station, al-Tanf border post and the al-Hail gas field in recent days) continues in the same pace, they will indubitably soon be fighting at T.4 airbase.


Recommended Articles

Islamic State captures Tadmur (Palmyra) in new sudden streak of offensives 
Islamic State captures large numbers of radars and missiles at Tadmur (Palmyra) airbase
The Islamic State's Spring Offensive: The Capture of Hulayhilah


  1. Excelent, as always!!! You do all this work for free? :-)

  2. Are those DIY grenades using spent 23mm shells in the last picture? I've seen similar in other IS releases from captured SyAA Stocks.

    Also I wonder how much IS actually commits against the YPG? Because everytime YPG announces they are winning, they can't be beat, yadda yadda, IS masses a fist, punches YPG out, YPG cries to Assad and US to help them and take months to regain ground even with massive air support from US and Artillery and Tank support from Assad. If Deir Ezzor falls to IS, is Kobane and Serenkanyie even viable defensively? If the US hadn't blown up 80% of Kobane, IS would have had control of it now, they only lifted the siege when SyAA started making big gains in Deir Ezzor to break the partial siege as they needed the troops to contain a potential Regime breakout of Deir Ezzor.

    1. Good questions, Sir.

    2. You're underestimating YPG. Without Coalition air support, I have no doubt they will lose Kobane canton but there is no chance that they will be losing Jazira canton anytime soon especially since they managed to clear Yaroubiyah and Jazaa without any Coalition bombing.

      Also, SAA (or more properly NDF) in Qamishli and Hasakah were the ones dependent on YPG and not the other way around given that they only managed to take villages when piggybacking YPG's major front-wide offensives (like when they expanded southwards from Qamishli during YPG Tal Hamis op and when they capture Tal Baroud during YPG Abdulaziz op)

    3. Yaroubiyah and Jazaa changed hands multiple times and only thanks to SyAA artillery support as reported by the KCK, the other Kurdish Group active. Whenever IS really pushes an offensive, YPG gets rolled over. I have also seen video evidence of YPG using human wave assaults and throwing children into the fight as actual line combatants as opposed to propaganda purposes like IS does then sends them back.

      Kobane was only cleared when FSA sent substantial forces to assist against an IS force that lost every available hiding spot to fight from due to the coalition dropping four bombs for every building in the city.

      The recent Hasakah Offensive was heavily dependent on SyAA artillery support, Sutoro and Arab Tribal Fighter support as YPG lacked the numbers to launch the offensive themselves after spending months in grinding attrition battles before quietly admitting they couldn't win.

      Already an IS counter-attack has retaken Gire Ebubekir, Qarajah, and Tall Tawkal which two days ago had been cleared.

      IS hasn't taken the area yet largely because they don't have many troops in the area, having them fighting on more critical fronts. That it takes months for YPG to clear them from areas, and IS has been slowly cementing its hold on the Khabour Valley tells us more about the quality of YPG and SyAA units than IS who only have 2,000 fighters present in that area at any given time.!Syrian_civil_war.png

      This was the YPG height in October of 2013.

      As can be seen, once IS appeared as an independent actor, it pretty much has been downhill for YPG. It lacks the manpower resources and it is not as organized as IS to run an efficient military organization across vast operational distances, nor does it have an efficient engineering corps like IS does that is constantly building infrastructure and repairing it.

      Plus the economy has boomed in areas under IS control. Satellite photos show traffic jams in IS areas which means gasoline is plentiful despite coalition bombing. IS also has consistent power for its factories unlike YPG areas. With its takeover of Palmyra District, IS has even more energy, and the Syrian Phosphate mines to add to its Iraqi Phosphate mine and the Al-Qaim Phosphate Processing Factory to refine it.

      This in turn means people are emigrating to IS held territory because there are jobs and services and no inflation.

      This becomes more embarrassing when you consider YPG has 83 billion dollars to tap, IS is estimated to have 2 billion at a conservative estimate and claims an 8 billion dollar budget for this year.

      So no YPG can't win, it is simply too corrupt and disorganized to maintain a consistent steady stream of replacements and support them in the field. This is what the underlying trends show.

      The battles we hear about are just icing, the real success is in the cake mixture, and YPG's mixture is bad, while IS is good and getting better as they learn and grow their organization.

      Once IS resolves more critical fights they will throw the numbers they need at the YPG Cantons which are already ground down in an attritional struggle they can't win and finish the job.

  3. Great Report as usual! Thank you Sir!

    Will there be a Report about Palmyra?

    1. Thanks.

      Tadmur will definitely be covered when images or footage comes out.

  4. Honest, no bullshit assessment please Mr Oryx: are IS capable of making a run on Damascus?

    1. They hold isolated blocking positions, crossroads, and staging areas leading to Damascus already. They also hold positions in view of Assad's home within Damascus itself!

      Palmyra gives them a straight shot to link up with them.

  5. What surprise me is some of the possible reasons of the results of this ongoing offensive.
    I was very surprised when it was announced the 104th Airborne Brigade was going the be pulled back to Ghouta for an offensive, it seemed absurd because still it was making slow but active advances on their front.

    In the end I think we should focus mostly on the basic of manpowers: what Assad has there? And what he could pour in the fight? Very little I think... if he removes units from Aleppo or Hama's frontline, there would be surelly a rebel offensive there to take some advantages.

    IS is already fighting on the north-east of of Suwayda and there Assad could rely on the druze (that are a likely target of the IS massacres, due their enthic and religion).

    An option could be a surprsing shift of alliances or at least a truce between rebel forces and Assad between Al-Nabek/Yabroud and the Sayqual and Dumayr airports: in that area of the east of the province, there has already been some truces.

    Hopefully Assad and local rebels could strenght a local truce to try to stop together IS and prevent an offensive against Damascus?

    Also I am wondering about the current Qualamoun operations: Assad's and Hezbollah media are praising it. The offensive has clearly more propaganda value than military matters: it's true they're regaining ground, but they're not likely destroying all the Nusra/islamist manpower, just pushing it back in Lebanon (forcing them to fight with the local IS forces).

    Still maybe, if they complete this offensive, cleaning such fron, they could divert troops to Homs.

    The main problem I think it's time: Assad and Hezbollah's force make very slow advances, while IS rely on speed.

  6. Sending tanks into the fray without infantry. How many times have we seen the futility of these moves? "Send in the tanks!" as if they were some sort of salvation. News outlets are calling the recent takeover of Idlib a tank massacre! And that took place only last week. Still commanders on the ground haven't grasped the tank's limitations. "Send in the tanks!" Ouch. I just wonder if I would have forgotten all these lessons if I was pinned down, and facing ISIS's onslaught.

    What's also surprising is the extent to which ISIS units plan their their attacks, and how well they execute these plans. You would think that they were the ones with an army established in the 1920s as opposed to five or six years ago. At the risk of sounding like an "IS/nusra/fsa snackbar salafist faggot", one cannot but appreciate this apparent professionalism.

    1. It's not worth responding to the boasting from the IS supporter, but there is a good point to be found in his comment. IS is fighting on multiple fronts. By it's own admission, it has taken 1000 dead at Kobane, and that suggests several thousand wounded. That's just Kobane - one corner of Syria. That's not counting the rebel offensives against IS, ground combat with the SAA, airstrikes in Iraq from the coalition, Iran and the Iraqi air force, combat with the ISF and Shiite militias, etc. How can IS sustain losses at this rate? The highest estimate for IS forces I have seen is 30,000. The Kurds proposed a much larger number, but no one takes that seriously. Assuming 30,000, they might be incurring 10% casualties per month. So where is their manpower shortage? Even if they could smuggle in enough foreign fighters and drum up local Sunni recruits to replace their losses, most of these men would be raw recruits and quality would degrade. At this point, we should be seeing either quantitative or qualitative degradation of IS forces, but I am not seeing it.

    2. "How can you defeat an enemy who looks into the barrel of your gun and sees paradise?" - Russian General during Chechen War

      "I bring with me men who desire death as ardently as you desire life" - Khalid bin Walid, Commander of Muslims during Khilafah Rashida

      The secret to their success is their total disregard for their own safety, the almost divine courage and determination to either achieve victory or martyrdom. We will never stop. This is Khilafah ala minhaj in Nubuwa.Thousands have come here from all walks of life from all the corners of this earth to build this State, with their blood and sacrifice. We will not give it up so easily Wallah. Your president Bush himself said that once the Khilafah is established it will be impossible to turn the tide against it. Guess he was right. You will never win in sha Allah.

    3. By IS own reports, they suffered little over 24,000 dead from April 2014 to April 2015. Half died fighting ISF, 2,600 died fighting Assad, 4,000 died fighting YPG on all fronts, the remaining is divided amongst all the other groups. Some of these are double entries where US strikes occurred.

      They also claim to have recruited 125,000 soldiers and 15,000 soldiers defected.

      This is just for Iraq and Syria.

      Their foes on the other hand are unable to grow their Armies or scratch build their economies to support their war effort.

      As for IS claims to be following the Quran:

      They are. Everything they do is backed by the Quran and Hadiths.Don't believe me, read them.

      As for their military strategy:

      Study Muhammad's and the Rashidun's Army's tactics and strategies and update them for modern technology and you have the IS military in a nutshell.

      Mubarizun are largely replaced by the Itishadi in SVBIEDs whose job it is to break the morale of the enemy by hitting the HQs allowing a general advance. The other part is the "Spec Ops" Cells that target poorly defended Sahwat Leaders by a variety of methods and perform Sniper Operations.

      Spearmen are the riflemen whose job it is to protect the RPGs and ATGMs who are the Archers.Their trucks allow them to perform karr wa farr at high speeds over vast operational distances with radios that Ibn Khalid barely managed with horse and bird messagers in the run up to conquering Syria.

      The Mobile Guard has replaced the horses with AFVs.and Trucks.

      Compare the IS conquests to the Rashidun Conquests and similarities start rising fast.

    4. you need to clear up some things there.
      1)The Islamic never claimed that any of its fighters defected, let alone 15000. Wheres your reference?
      2) Its khalid bin Walid, not ibn Khalid

      Other than that your comment has no other problem isee such. Yes the Mujahideen follow the Quran and Sunnah 100%, thats the ultimate formula for success.

    5. 1. 15,000 defected to them from other groups the largest proportion being JAN, sorry I wasn't clear from the latest yearly report IS released.

      2. I often see Khalid bin Walid written as Ibn Khalid in Western Sources so much I use it by default even though I should know better. A bad habit I'm trying to break. Forgive me.

      What is clear though is like the Rashidun, IS has had its share of tactical setbacks, but consistently maintains its core territories and grabs ever more strategic ground while denying it to their enemies. Which is why IS is saying screw it and blowing Baiji Refinery to hell, they have other refineries, not as big as Baiji but sufficient for their needs.

      Lets see winter of 2013/2014 IS contracted 90% when Rebels turned on them and the fought to the death in Raqqah. Winter of 2014/2015 they contracted only 25%.

      Now they are on the ascent again.

    6. To the commenter who posted at "26 May 2015 at 04:20":

      1. Where has IS laid out all these statistics? Is there a website or some other source?

      2. If IS has confirmed 24,000 KIA, what about wounded? If they incurred a WIA;KIA ratio of 4:1, that's 120,000 combined casualties, close to 100% of their claimed force size. Even if we drop the ratio to 3:1 and even if we generously assume that medical care in IS territory is so good that half the WIA were able to return to duty, that would still remove from the battlefield 60,000 fighters out of 125,000 claimed fighters. Thus, in May 2015, we would expect to see either 1) a much smaller IS force overall or 2) an IS force that has maintained its size through new recruitment, but which now has raw, untrained recruits comprising approximately 50% of the force. Thus, using the IS statistics you cited, we should be seeing some degradation in quantity or quality or both.

    7. Watch the full video over here

  7. Was ISIS using ex-Iraqi army or ex-Syrian T-72M1???
    Sand colored T-72M1 seem´s like ex-Iraqi IMO

    1. I'm pretty sure this one was captured in Syria.

  8. This blog have very interesting commenters, keep the good work men!


    Just released by IS from Palmyra.

    What exactly am I looking at here? They appear to be warheads of some type, but to what?

  10. Kh-58 / AS-11 Kliter I would say...

    1. Would it be possible to fit those to ground launchers and shoot them at Syrian Radar Stations? With more rumors from Raqqah is being silently slaughtered of IS flying the few operational aircraft it has despite US and SyAAF surveillance, I wonder if they could work around the fire control system to ground launch them at Syrian Radars, thus really blinding Assad's eyes in the Sky. Or are they better off rigging them for dumb fire, fire them off in the hopes of hitting something and just to be done with them so they don't have to guard them?

    2. Unlikely as this air launched weapon was designed for MiG-25BM and then, other platforms that IS do not have.
      Taqba AB just host MiG-21 and a few L-39, both unable to fired this weapon.
      Then, you need a special pod (Fantasmagoria) to make this system fully functional.
      At least, I hope that the only reason for the SAA to let this missiles intact (an endless matter of surprise/irritation/interrogation...), is the fact that this harware is inoperational for long (end of service life).
      Now maybe they will be used as IED (oflr derivative) or DIY Free Rocket Over Ground, with questionable efficency...

  11. This is done extremely well, as usual. Thanks for all of the work you do.

  12. The 18th Tank Battalion is from the 10th Mechanized Division correct?