Anti-ISIS push advances in Syria, slows in Iraq
BEIRUT - The seizure by Syrian state forces of the strategic town of Al-Qaryatain has opened the way for a major offensive on the Islamic State’s de facto capital of Raqqa and the oil and gas fields of Deir ez-Zor along the Iraqi border that, if successful, would put President Bashar Assad’s regime in a powerful position in UN-sponsored peace talks in Geneva.
Clearly there is a lot of fighting still to come as Assad’s army and its allies, ferociously supported by Russian air power, battle to recover territory lost in a war that entered its sixth year on March 15th.
But recapturing the heavily bombed city of Raqqa in north-eastern Syria and the oil and gas fields in Deir ez-Zor, an important economic centre for the jihadists’ caliphate, would deal the Islamic State (ISIS) a severe double blow from which it would have great difficulty recovering.
A defeat on that scale would be immeasurably heightened if Iraqi forces, aided by what appears to be a growing US deployment on the ground, recapture the northern city of Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city seized by ISIS in June 2014 and where the caliphate was proclaimed the following month.
The Iraqi campaign against Mosul was launched by two army brigades on March 24th and could take months. The push, backed by US air strikes, has been slowed by poor coordination between army units and tens of thousands of civilians trapped between the army and ISIS.
It was halted April 5th outside the ISIS-held Euphrates river town of Hit in Anbar province, when ISIS launched a wave of car and roadside bombings and mortar fire.
A key objective of the Iraqi offensive is to cut links between Mosul and Raqaa. Syria’s Deir ez-Zor province is a vital ISIS link with its forces in Iraq.
The loss of Al-Qaryatain — much of which, including a fifth-century monastery, was destroyed by the retreating jihadists — greatly reduces ISIS’s ability to threaten Syria’s heavily populated western areas that include Damascus and other cities.
The April 4th fall of Al-Qaryatain, encircled by regime forces after they stormed the ISIS-held desert city of Palmyra, 100km to the west in Homs province, on March 27th was an important breakthrough because the jihadists had used it to mount offensives into the eastern Qalamoun mountains that shield Damascus.
The regime’s next target on the road to Raqqa appears to be Al- Sukhna, 70km east of Palmyra and overrun by ISIS in May 2015. The town sits astride the strategic M20 highway leading to Deir ez-Zor, where regime forces hold a pocket of territory despite repeated ISIS assaults.
“Regime forces supported by allied militiamen of Syrian, Arab and Asian nationalities are massing in the Wadi al-Ahmar east of Palmyra in preparation for a wide-scale attack on Al-Sukhna,” the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the war, reported.