Saturday, 7 January 2017

Back And Forth: How The Islamic State Retook Tadmur

By Stijn Mitzer and Joost Oliemans


The ancient city of Palmyra has become a symbol in the world's fight against the Islamic State. It represents one of the few places where every (non-IS) party agrees on the ultimate fate of the city and its archaeological ruins, this in sharp contrast to other cities and locations elsewhere in Syria and Iraq. Indeed, Palmyra holds a special place in the hearts of many, and preserving this symbol of civilisation is not only in the interest of Syrians, but for mankind in general. Despite its cultural significance, the ancient ruins are a mere collection of bricks in the face of civilian casualties during the course of the Civil War, which are thought to range in the hundreds of thousands. The regime's decision to prioritise the ruins of Palmyra (Tadmur) over strategic targets in March 2016 would ultimately result in failure, losing control over Tadmur for the second time on the 11th of December 2016.

The sudden fall of Tadmur came as a surprise to many following the Syrian Civil War, as there appeared to be no imminent threat to the city less than a week before its fall. Taking place less than nine months after the recapture of Tadmur by units of the Syrian Arab Army, Hizbullah, Shiite militias and the Russian Armed Forces, and one-and-a-half years after the Islamic State captured Tadmur for the first time, the speed and relative ease by which the Islamic State captured the town in less than three days must even have surprised the Islamic State itself, recapturing much of the ground it previously lost in May 2015. The large concentration of Islamic State fighters in and around Tadmur then threatened installations deeper into government-held Syria, including T4 airbase. Despite this threat, it should be mentioned that Fortress T4 is among the best defended military installations in Syria, and the Islamic State indeed proved unable to overcome its strong defences once again.

The capture of Tadmur by the Islamic State came as the latest in a string of events swiftly unfolding throughout Syria at the end of 2016. In Aleppo, much of the rebel-held areas have been brought back under government control, with the remaining rebel pocket crushed after vast artillery strikes just a day after the fall of Tadmur. Meanwhile, further North the Free Syrian Army backed by Turkey recently captured the Islamic State stronghold of al-Bab. While one could argue these events are directly related to the Islamic State's decision to attack now, rumours about the departure of much of the remaining contingent of defenders in the days before the capture might have played a more important role in the Islamic State's decision to act now. Having a clear view of the city from the mountainous area around Tadmur, it is at least possible that the Islamic State closely followed the situation inside the city before launching an offensive. Either way, many of the fighters involved were relocated from elsewhere in Islamic State held territory, suggesting the planning for the offensive had already been underway for quite some time.

The developments provided the Islamic State with the perfect opportunity to shift away attention from its recent setbacks in Mosul, where the Iraqi Army along with Shiite militias are engaged in a gruelling campaign aimed at taking back the largest city currently under Islamic State control. Being in control of Tadmur also gave the Islamic State another opportunity to prolong its control over parts of Syria, as larger cities such as Tadmur can be extremely time-consuming and costly to recapture once its fighters are dug in. In similar fashion, the Islamic State currently still attempts to gain complete control over Deir ez-Zor, but remains and in the future will likely remain unable to do so. Nonetheless, the prospect of a relief of the city by regime forces, prerequisites for which are control of Tadmur and al-Sukhna, had once again been set back massively, and the situation in Deir ez-Zor was looking all the more dire for it as a result. The capture of large amounts of weaponry, vehicles and other equipment will also have been a great bounty for the Islamic State, as such equipment can be easily distributed to its fighters elsewhere. Furthermore, the Islamic State soon continued its efforts to demolish the ancient ruins of Palmyra, attempting to use them as a propaganda tool for revenging its recent defeats and deterring its opponents from advancing further. Indeed, satellite imagery dating from January revealed that the Islamic State had begun demolishing several ancient structures, including the Tetrapylon and the Roman Theater. The heavy damage done to the latter is an unfortunate result of the 'Praying for Palmyra - Music revives ancient ruins' concert held here by Russia in March 2016, after which the Islamic State promised to demolish the theater upon return to the city.

Before going into detail on the capture of Tadmur itself, it is insightful to consider the regime's own offensive to recapture the city back in March 2016, which ended in success after over two weeks of fighting. Although promising at first, with the prospective of clearing a path to the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor looming, the offensive halted after pushing the Islamic State just out of the city's borders (liberating the city itself but little of the surrounding terrain), and the front had since then remained more or less stationary. This allowed the Islamic State to maintain a presence on the outskirts of the city, from where they even had a view of Tadmur airbase. During this time sporadic clashes continued, but no large scale offensive were undertaken by either side. Despite the lack of Islamic State attempts to retake the city, the defence of the city was a costly task in terms of manpower required to garrison it, and considering the fact these forces were direly needed in other parts of the country the value of the offensive was questionable in the first place. Indeed, the Islamic State had made no serious attempts to push further into government-held territory after failing to overcome the extensive regime fortifications present around T4 airbase after it first captured Tadmur in May 2015, and from this location the area could have been kept secure until a full scale offensive against the Islamic State proper would have become a possibility. This optimism was reflected by the subsequent attempt at marching on Raqqa, which also failed disastrously after much of the forces involved fled from an Islamic State counter-attack.

Surprisingly, the Islamic State left large parts of the ancient city intact during its one year rule of Tadmur, and its subsequent capture by the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), Hizbullah, Shiite militias and the Russian Armed Forces was hailed as a victory for mankind. Indeed, the recapture of Tadmur was an extremely well-orchestrated PR-stunt, aimed at showing the world that with Russia involved, terrorism on Syrian soil would be eradicated. To mark the success of the offensive, a triumphal concert was broadcasted into the world, hailing the victory over the Islamic State.

Despite Tadmur's vulnerability, significant forces were stationed around the city at the time of capture, supported by copious amounts of artillery, tanks and the Russian and Syrian air forces. Nonetheless, the mountainous terrain surrounding Tadmur can work both to the advantage and disadvantage of defending forces by giving a clear view of the city and its landscape. While in the hands of the defenders they can enhance the defensive overview of the battlefield, when lost to the enemy they provide an ideal position from which to attack the city. Losing one of these positions could quickly result in the city being overrun, which was exactly what happened during the Islamic State's December offensive.

The supposed arrival of hundreds or even thousands of Islamic State fighters from Mosul directly through Coalition patrolled territory prior to the start of the offensive was reported by the regime, but serves as nothing more than a poor excuse to hide the regime's own lack of anticipation on the deployment of Islamic State forces outside of Tadmur. Indeed, the relocation of large numbers of Islamic State forces and armour should have been easily noticable to Russian and Syrian intelligence forces prior to the attack as many of the units directly came from Raqqa. Even if the unlikely mass exodus of Islamic State fighters from Iraq to Tadmur took place, this should have become known to the government well in advance of the Islamic State's offensive.

Defending Tadmur were numerous units part of the National Defence Force (NDF), remnants of the Syrian Arab Army's 11th and 18th divisions, elements of the Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade (de-facto part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards) and a small number of Tiger Forces, supported by an unknown number of Russian soldiers left in the city. Two major defensive positions surrounded Tadmur, comprising the mountainous area North of the city and the grain silos East of the city. If any of these were to fall, especially the position North of the city, the fall of Tadmur itself would essentially be inevitable. The regime was more than aware of this fact, and diverted much attention to the defence of the Northern and Eastern flanks of Tadmur. Although bolstering the defence of the city with large amounts of heavy weaponry, the lack of a well-led harmonious force in charge of defending the city was to leave its traces during the subsequent Islamic State offensive.

This brings us back to the actual offensive, where the attack would, in true Islamic State fashion, commence with the use of VBIEDs (the Islamic State's morbid equivalent of an airstrike). This type of suicide vehicle is not only effective in its destructive power, but even more so as a psychological weapon. This had its intended effect, and government forces stationed Northeast of Tadmur were routed en masse in the resulting chaos. The Islamic State forces that followed mounted an offensive from this position and despite reports of heavy shelling and airstrikes continued to push closer to Tadmur itself. Most of the troops that fled appear not to have regrouped at Tadmur but instead fled directly to 'Fortress T4' itself, an indication of the poor state of the regime's military in this region. During the conquest for the city weaknesses in the Syrian and Russian air forces were apparent, diminishing the regime's chances of holding onto the city. Largely reliant on iron bombs and hindered by poor coordination, little impact was made by airstrikes in the early stages of the battle, contrasting with battles such as the conquest for Kobanê, where effective use of airpower prevented the Islamic State from capturing the city in a turning point in the war. Later heavy Russian air strikes would apparently temporarily halt the Islamic State's advance on Tadmur forcing them to regroup, but these efforts would prove to be too little too late. The ease with which the Islamic State can move through the open desert undetected remains a serious problem for the regime, and the loss of Tadmur could directly be attributed to this fact.

Although the actual number of Islamic State fighters that participated in the Tadmur offensive remains unknown, the presence of numerous tanks upgraded by the 'The Workshop' hinted at a significant redeployment of personnel and equipment from Raqqa to Tadmur. 'The Workshop' is the Islamic State's largest armour workshop in Syria, and has produced a wide range of armour upgrades for the around two-hundred tanks captured and operated by the Islamic State since 2014.

The defenders could count on around forty armoured fighting vehicles (AFVs), around thirty of which tanks. Interestingly, most of the tanks were held back in the city itself, likely to be used in a future government offensive to advance deeper into Islamic State held Central Syria. Instead of deploying these tanks in the defence of the city, most appear not to have moved since the Islamic State commenced its attack. While one could blame the defenders for not deploying these tanks on the city's perimeter, the exodus of regime forces out of Tadmur left the remaining defenders with numerous tanks, but no personnel to move them.

Interestingly, some of the fighters that had previously fled to T4 airbase returned to Tadmur, reinforcing the remnants of the NDF, the Liwa Fatemiyoun brigade, the 18th and 11th Division and the Tiger Forces that stayed behind. While a welcome addition to the by then badly depleted defenders, their arrival would ultimately turn out to be too little support, too late. The region around Tadmur was also put under pressure, preventing these positions from offering assistance to the defence of the city.

The defence of the other major obstacle for the Islamic State on the road of Tadmur, the Grain Silos, was in the hands of Liwa Fatemiyoun, an Afghan Shiite militia part of Iran's Revolutionary Guards. Liwa Fatemiyoun took part in the regime's first offensive to drive the Islamic State out of Tadmur and its surroundings, and had maintained a presence here ever since. Although their performance throughout Syria has been mixed, the Liwa Fatemiyoun contingent stationed near the Grain Silos proved incapable of anticipating the scale and speed of the Islamic State's offensive.

It is thus unsurprising that the other major obstacle for the Islamic State on the road to Tadmur would ultimately fall, opening the way up to the city. Further checkpoints guarding the perimeter of the city had already been abandoned by that time, ensuring a smooth entrance into the city for the Islamic State. While one could argue the decision to retreat from here was a cowardly one, it actually made tactical sense. There was no plan for defending the city using these checkpoints only, and if the regime forces would have held ground here, it was still extremely unlikely that they could have defended the city, especially considering it was largely uninhabited. If the defenders at the checkpoints had stood their ground, it would only have been a matter of time before the Islamic State would enter the city, where the house-to-house combat would have worked in the disadvantage of the defenders. While the loss of the city and its archaeological ruins was highly unfortunate, after losing the major defensive positions guarding the city retreating was the logical choice, especially considering the fact that conditions in the city were already close to untenable before the Islamic State assault.

Indeed, although the city and its defences were stocked with heavy weaponry, basic equipment such as enough radios and generators to charge them was lacking. Where there were generators, there was barely enough fuel to charge them. Food and water rations were not only insufficient, but of extremely poor quality. This had a serious effect on the morale of defenders, further worsening the situation. The image below details such a ration, which was supposedly meant to feed five people for one full day.

The Russian Army, which maintained a limited presence in Tadmur, had departed shortly before the fall of the city. Although Russians had been active in capturing the city in the first place, some were left behind to clear the many mines and IEDs in the city or to guard those that were doing so. For this purpose, sappers and special equipment were deployed, including several Uran-6 mine-clearing robots.

Although the Russian base appeared abandoned, with several of the original structures missing, tents were still seen standing, including what appeared to be the camp's kitchen with food still on display. Personal items such as a Russian credit card were also found. Tinkoff Bank, which had issued the credit card, swiftly blocked it after it featured in an Islamic State video from the base.

A Russian BPM-97 and two up-armoured Ural-4320s were some of the more notable among the vehicles captured in Tadmur. Although both types are in use with the Russian Armed Forces contingent in Syria, small numbers also entered service with elements of the Syrian military. It is thus more likely that these vehicles were operated by Syria's Tiger Forces rather than the Russian Armed Forces.

A list of captured armour, artillery and vehicles featured in footage and images released by the Islamic State from Tadmur. The amount of heavy weaponry claimed to have been captured by the Islamic State included at least forty tanks and seven BMP-1s, which would make this the second-largest heavy arms haul of the Syrian Civil War after the capture of Brigade 93 by the Islamic State in August 2014, which was believed to have provided the Islamic State with no less than fifty tanks and just under twenty howitzers.

The amount of vehicles captured at Tadmur likely ended up higher however, and footage from te the Islamic State's march on T4 showed several tanks captured at Tadmur that weren't included in Islamic State footage from the city. The capture of a single T-72B, a single BPM-97, two armoured Ural-4320s, one UR-83P mine-clearing line charge and numerous AK-74s is notable, as these have all been provided to the Syrian military by Russia in the past few years.

- 7 T-55As
- 6 T-55Ms
- 4 T-62 Mod. 1967s
- 6 T-62 Mod. 1972s
- 1 T-72M1
- 1 T-72AV
- 1 T-72B
- 5 BMP-1s
- 1 ZSU-23
- 1 AMB-S
- 1 BPM-97
- 1 VT-55KS
- 7 122mm D-30 howitzers
- 2 130mm M-46 field-guns
- 1 152mm ML-20 howitzer
- 3 122mm BM-21 multiple rocket launchers
- 1 UR-83P mine-clearing line charge
- 1 14.5mm ZPU-4
- 6 23mm ZU-23s
- 1 37mm M-1939
- 1 57mm AZP S-60
- 3 S-125 surface-to-air missile (SAM) launchers
- 1 SNR-125 ''Low Blow'' (For the S-125)
- 7 Tatra (815)s
- 3 GAZ-33088
- 2 ZiL-131s
- 2 Armoured Ural-4320s
- 2 Ural-4320s
- 1 V3S
- Numerous technicals with associated anti-aircraft guns

The list includes at least twenty-six tanks, most of which captured within the perimeter of the city itself. Interestingly, most tanks appeared not to have been moved out of their bases, confirming that their crews had already fled well in advance of the Islamic State's takeover of the city. While this already poses a serious issue, the fact that none of them were then demolished by the remaining defenders or the Syrian or Russian Air Forces allowed the Islamic State to further strengthen its forces and could have led to serious consequences for T4 airbase later on.

Nonetheless, other tanks were seen parked at one of the several checkpoints guarding the city. While this may seem to make a lot more tactical sense than the situation described in the previous paragraph, the checkpoint the tanks were spotted at actually faced away from the Islamic State's advance. While Tadmur was thus packed with heavy weaponry, only a small part of that was actually available to the defenders on the frontline.

Boosted by the large amount of weaponry and ammunition captured in and around Tadmur, the fighters of the Islamic State then set their eyes on T4 airbase, which had proved an obstacle too ambitious to take on after the Islamic State captured Tadmur for the first time in May 2015. Indeed, the Islamic State's second attempt at taking T4 bears heavy resemblance to their previous effort. After capturing Tadmur on the 11th of December, the road to 'Fortress T4' was practically open, allowing for significant progress at advancing closer to the airbase.

T4, sharing its name with the nearby pumping station, is the Syrian Arab Air Force's (SyAAF) most important airbase. The remains of two fighter-bomber squadrons, a detachment of L-39s, one helicopter squadron, other helicopter detachments and Russian assets are currently operating out of T4, including the pride of the SyAAF: Its Su-24MK2s. Despite being Syria's largest airbase, T4 only has one runway, making the airbase's aircraft vulnerable in case it gets taken out. Given its status, it is unsurprising that the airbase is extremely well defended, now also including elements of the Russian military.

While the Islamic State had previously found itself unable to overcome T4's strong defences, its second attempt was carried out by a much stronger force, further bolstered by weaponry previously captured in Tadmur, which exceeded that of the previous capture in numbers. Before reaching the airbase's line of defensive, large swaths of open terrain surrounding the Eastern and Southern part of the T4 had to be overcome however. This is where the Islamic State's previous attempt came to a grinding halt, a place that would prove to be just as troublesome for its fighters this time around.

While the Islamic State could count on an increased number of fighters and weaponry, T4's defences were meanwhile quickly reinforced with elements of the Syrian military, including the first elements of the 5th Corps, and Russian special forces in addition to the experienced defenders already present. As the flat terrain worked heavily in the favour of the defenders, the Islamic State's best option was to attempt to encircle the airbase and try to achieve a breakthrough at a place less well defended. With reinforcements for the defenders underway, time was of the essence.

To deny the government the ability to bring in these additional reinforcements, cutting the road connection between T4 and government-held territory was necessary to prevent a safe passage to the airbase. A strong Islamic State presence on the West side of T4 would also force the defenders to reinforce this part of the airbase, which is naturally less easily defended. This, in combination with Islamic State attacks on the Eastern and Southern part of T4 could have presented the Islamic State with the much needed weak spot that could then be exploited by the main force following behind. Images showing just how close the Islamic State had meanwhile gotten to T4 airbase can be seen below.

While the fighters of the Islamic State succeeded in temporarily disputing the major road leading to the airbase, they once again proved unable to maintain the encirclement of the airbase, allowing the regime to bring in further reinforcements. The Islamic State's armour also proved unable to place themselves into positions allowing for supression of the defenders due to the presence of anti-tank guided missiles (ATGMs), which knocked out several Islamic State tanks that attempted to do so. Russian ATGM teams armed with 9M133 Kornet ATGMs were also active at T4.

Further help came from an unexpected corner, as Coalition aircraft reportedly struck fourteen tanks, three howitzers, two buildings and two vehicles, supposedly killing at least thirty-eight Islamic State fighters in the vicinity of T4 airbase, denying the Islamic State the ability to build up sufficient forces needed for attempting a breakthrough. In the meantime, the weather took a turn for the worse and temporarily covered the surrounding area in snow, as depicted below.

Although continuing to exert heavy pressure on the Northern, Eastern and Southern part of T4, even capturing a S-125 surface-to-air missile site on the Northern flank, the Islamic State failed to find the weak spot needed to have any serious chance at infiltrating the airbase, at which point its offensive effectively ended. It had taken heavy losses while attempting to advance further into government-held territory, and much of the remaining Islamic State contingent left the area for Deir ez-Zor. The Islamic State was now on the defence, which would soon reveal a major weakness due to the unabating attrition its forces face.


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