Monday, 28 March 2016

Tadmur recaptured, Islamic State forces on the run

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans

After having been captured by the Islamic State just short of a year ago, the city of Tadmur is now back in government hands after a large offensive conducted by units of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), Hizbullah, Shiite militias and the Russian Armed Forces cleared the town city and its surroundings from the presence of the Islamic State. While the recapture of the ancient town of Palmyra, home to many well-preserved ruins and archeologica artifacts, will surely make the headlines all over the world, wrestling control over the city of Tadmur itself from the Islamic State is of a much larger significance to the future course of the Syrian War.

Its significance arises not only from the gasfield-rich terrain in which it lies, a factor which is sure to aid future government operations, but also from the strategic location of Tadmur within Syria. Holding the key to the highway connecting Deir ez-Zor to the West of Syria, the only thing laying in the way of breaking the siege of this heavily embattled city is al-Sukhna, held firmly in Islamic State control since May 2015. However, with the fighters of the Islamic State on the run and little reinforcements present in the area, a regime offensive to quickly retake al-Sukhna before the Islamic State has had the chance to regroup seems likely.


The siege of Deir ez-Zor, in place since the capture of al-Sukha by the Islamic State on the 13th of May 2015, prevents any aid from being brought in by trucks, forcing the remaining citizens of the city to rely on an airbridge conducted by the Syrian Arab Air Force's (SyAAF) Il-76 fleet. Maintaining the airbridge is an expensive affair, not to mention the fact that it prevents the precious Il-76 fleet from being used for other critical tasks. To quickly continue the offensive in the direction of al-Sukhna is critical in order to deny the fighters of the Islamic State the opportunity to dig in and create defensive line here. The fact that Tadmur airbase has been captured intact will greatly benefit the SyAA in future operations in Central to Eastern Syria. The long runway will allow cargo aircraft to bring in supplies and additional troops and could be used for the forward deployment of attack helicopters, as was already witnessed the day after the capture.

While the capture of Tadmur will surely be celebrated as a heroic feat by the Syrian Arab Army, one must not forget it was the same SyAA that gave up the town without any serious opposition one year ago. Indeed, what was intended to be a lightning attack on the town of al-Sukhna in a way so often seen conducted by the fighters of the Islamic State ultimately ended up as the surprise capture of Tadmur. Instead of putting up a serious fight to defend the town, the garrison of al-Sukhna quickly fled for the desert after two of its tanks were destroyed by ATGMs, only to be chased and hunted down by the fighters of the Islamic State. Encountering nothing but desert after al-Sukhna, the Islamic State waged its chances and quickly continued its offensive deeper into Central Syria. When arriving at the next (heavily defended) government bases; T3 pumping station, Arak, and Hulayhilah, the defenders not only failed to point their artillery and tanks in the right direction, but in fact didn't manage to deploy them in the first place. It seems plausible that the defenders were completely unaware of the impending danger, which is all the more strange as Hulayhilah served as a communication hub to coordinate regime operations in Central Syria. Unfortunately, the defenders that did manage to escape the massacre that followed at Hulayhilah were also hunted down after fleeing into the desert.

Boosted by these successes, the fighters of the Islamic State then set their eyes on the town of Tadmur. Although by now fully aware of the impending danger, regime forces present in Tadmur proved to be completely incapable of properly anticipating the impending assault and setting up defensive positions. Not even the local airbase, guarding the entrance of the town and without a doubt the best defensive position a commander could wish for was employed in the defence of the town. While the regime saved no effort to show off artillery and aircraft striking positions of the Islamic State east of Tadmur for the international press, it then quickly fled the town, leaving not only the civilian population behind, but also many soldiers incapable of fleeing and left to fend for themselves. A small Islamic State force originally tasked with capturing al-Sukhna thus suddenly found itself amidst the ruins of Palmyra just a week later; it had advanced quicker than the Syrian Arab Army could retreat on several occasions, only being 'beaten' by the rapid retreat of the troops tasked with defending Tadmur.

The Islamic State quickly rounded up the remaining government forces, some of which were directly executed in front of the local population but most locked up in the infamous prison of Tadmur, sight of the 1980 massacre. After featuring the captured soldiers in various propaganda videos, during which some were executed in front of the prison but mainly in the ancient town of Palmyra (most notoriously in the Roman Theatre), the prison was blown up, in addition to various well-preserved temples in the ancient city. The fighters of the Islamic State were meanwhile busy fighting their way farther into the Homs governorate, capturing T4 pumping station and clashing with the defenders of T4 airbase. Being the SyAAF's largest and most important airbase, it can truly be called a fortress. The fighters of the Islamic State found itself incapable of capturing the airbase (which would have required an offensive on a scale not yet seen before) and were forced to work around the airbase in order to continue its advance. It then focused on the towns of al-Qaryatayn and Mahin and by advancing into the Damascus and Homs countryside, it even successfully cut of T4 airbase for a short time. Although capturing large swaths of territory, the fighters of the Islamic State soon found themselves unable to push deeper into the Homs and Damascus governorates. While it captured, lost, and then recaptured al-Qaryatayn and Mahin, further Islamic State's advances were effectively blocked here. Although in no way short on ammunition due to the huge amounts of weaponry found at al-Qaryatayn earlier (including ten tanks), the town is now fully under siege by the regime. Back to Tadmur, where the first serious reports about regime forces aiming to recapture the town started to surface in July. From this point on, three different offensives were launched at the town.

The defence of Tadmur was in the hands of a small Islamic State garrison, which due to the now worsening shortages in manpower was unable to defend such a large area. Although the Islamic State hugely expanded its territories by the capture of much of Central Syria, it simply lacked the troops to properly defend it. The small garrison present therefore chose to focuss its firepower at the mountainous terrain west of the city. Serving as a natural barrier, these mountains proved ideal for fighting off the first offensive conducted by the regime. This first offensive consisted of poorly trained NDF and militia members supported by T-55s and T-62s and the SyAAF flying Su-22M4s and Su-24MK2s from T4. Several attempts were made to advance on Tadmur and although terrain was captured, heavy losseswere also incurred due to the use of ATGMs by the Islamic State. Several follow-up attempts yielded the same result, and government forces were ultimately broken up and routed each time. The second offensive was launched after Russian-supplied T-72Bs, BMP-2s, BMP-1s, BTR-80s and Russian-manned 152mm 2A65 Msta-B howitzers and 122mm BM-21-1 multiple rocket launchers (MRLs) arrived on the scene, further supported by the Russian Air Force (RuAF) flying Mi-8s, Mi-24Ps and Mi-35Ms from T4 and Sh'eirat and Su-24s and Su-25s from Hmeemeem/Bassel al-Assad IAP. This offensive, now jointly conducted with the Russians, again advanced closer to Tadmur but failed to break through to the town. The Islamic State frequently counterattacked with its fighters and tanks, but also with BMP-1 based vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices (VBIEDs). The short range of the BMP-1's 73mm 2A28 Grom cannon made this vehicle practically useless for the Islamic State in its intended role, and the large numbers captured allowed the Islamic State to effectively employ them as VBIEDs. Such attacks were usually preceded by a defensive position drawing attention from the opposing regime forces, allowing the BMP-1 VBIEDs to speed towards the distracted regime forces unnoticed, detonating their deadly payload when close by.

The sheer size and firepower of the units in the third offensive is what ultimately caused the fighters of the Islamic State to break. The offensive, preparations for which were already underway for a month, involved the best Russia and the regime had to offer. The armoured forces were expanded by the addition of more T-72Bs, and T-72B Obr. 1989s and T-90s while the artillery was strenghtened by the addition of 220mm BM-27s, 300mm BM-30s and 220mm TOS-1As. The Russian Air Force intensified its operations over Tadmur, even bringing in recently arrived Mi-28N attack helicopters. The regime brought in a large contingent of the elite Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons) troops, Navy Seals, commandos and Shiite militias, even including an Afghan battalion with its own tanks, once again highlighting the shortage of regular manpower. The deployment of such a large force, part of which led by Suheil 'The Tiger' al-Hassan, was made possible after the successes around Aleppo and Lattakia, allowing for the redistribition of troops elsewhere. The SyAAF's SA-342 'Gazelles' also saw heavy action over the skies of Tadmur, each helicopter deploying 4 HOT ATGMs.

Aided by the deployment of Russian Special Forces, mainly tasked with calling in fire and air support, this force gradually fought its way closer to the city. Completely outmatched by the vast amount of firepower this offensive brought with it, the fighters of the Islamic State gradually retreated closer to the town, holding up in the ancient castle west of the city until it was overrun as well. The huge weapon depots north of the city also quickly came under the control of the attacking forces. Although large numbers of weaponry and ammunition were expected to have been present here before being captured by fighters of the Islamic State, only one image was ever published after the capture of the depots, leaving the amount of ghaneema (spoils of war) unknown.

While it was expected the remaining Islamic State fighters would turn the town into a fortress, forcing the attacking forces to fight for every building like in Ramadi, they gave up large parts of the town without putting up much resistance, instead retreating to al-Sukhna. The regime had prepared its forces for the possibility of house-to-house fighting, even bringing in T-72s upgraded with slat and spaced armour to better counter the threat posed by RPGs in urban areas. Large numbers of IEDs were reportedly left behind, which are certain to claim additional lives as efforts are undertaken to remove them. It is unknown what happened to the mainly Sunni civilian population, thousands of which still believed to have been in the city shortly before being recaptured by the government. While pro-regime sources claimed they had all escaped safely into regime territory, the Islamic State asked civilians to leave the town and head towards al-Sukhna a short while later. Supposedly, the Russian Army is to deploy advanced equipment and sappers to aid in the removal of the many IEDs left behind in the area.

Tadmur airbase was captured almost entirely intact, which will prove of great value for future offensives conducted in the region, and also help resolidify the regime's grasp on the large swaths of desert that make up most of Central Syria. The Hardened Aircaft Shelters (HAS) revealed that most of the Kh-28 anti-radiation missiles and R-40 air-to-air missiles left behind by the SyAAF remained untouched by the fighters of the Islamic State. Surprisingly however, at least one R-40TD infrared-guided missile was turned into a makeshift surface-to-air missile. The HASes also functioned as improvised weapon and IED factories under Islamic State control. It is unknown if any of the six radars previously captured by the Islamic State suffered any kind of damage, although it certain the regime is hoping the modern JY-27 radar located here survived, as it was one of the most valuable systems present. Without these radars, most of Central Syria is essentially fair game for any air force to invade completely unnoticed. Of course, as sovereignty of Syrian air space is a term of very little significance in the present one can wonder whether preservation of such systems has any real meaning however.

Now that Tadmur has been retaken and a swift advance on al-Sukhna appears to be likely, the future of the city of Deir ez-Zor is suddenly full of possibilities again. A logical course of actions for the Assad regime would to restore a ground supply line to the city as fast as possible and then attempt take as much territory from the Islamic State as possible in this area before the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) sweep in from the North. Should the siege of Deir ez-Zor indeed be lifted and the surrounding areas taken, the Islamic State would no longer have any roads connecting the capital of Raqqa with Mosul and Iraq in general, which would certainly hasten its demise.

The regime upmarch contrasts sharply with gains made by the Islamic State in the previous few years, and sheds light on just how much the odds have shifted in favour of President Assad since those times. As government-held territory continues to expand and viable alternatives are outcompeted by more radicalised factions, Assad holds an increasingly favourable position in the Geneva peace talks, and is unlikely to resign or be forced to step down in the foreseeable future. In the meanwhile the Islamic State, though threatened on almost every front, is still far from defeated and as is witnessed by the recent flurry of attacks across the world, has suffered little in its capacity to conduct operations abroad. Nonetheless, considering the amount of foes it faces and territories it has lost in both Syria and Iraq in recent months, it is certain that the Islamic State will never be able to regain control over an area as large as it had the summer of last year.

Images by TASS Russian News Agency.


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