Syria’s conflict on a new track after Palmyra
DAMASCUS - The Syrian government’s capture of the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State (ISIS) has put the conflict on a new path, allowing the Damascus regime to resist opposition pressure at Geneva peace talks and to maintain its “red lines” — mainly the refusal to discuss the fate of President Bashar Assad.
“The liberation of Palmyra is not an ordinary event and we will not let it slip by unnoticed like the liberation of Al-Qasir in Homs governorate or the liberation of Rabia and Salma in Latakia governorate and many other Syrian cities,” said General Hassan Suleiman, head of the Propaganda and Psychological Warfare Section in the Syrian Army’s Political Department.
Suleiman said the fall of ISIS in Palmyra, which it controlled for 10 months, “leaves the door wide open for more defeats” for the terrorist group, “gives the Syrian Army a free hand in all eastern districts, including Raqqa, and blocks any attempt for ground intervention, be it from Turkey or Saudi Arabia.”
The newly captured territory, is “rear base for expanding military operations on various axis, primarily Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor”, the army said in a statement, referring to ISIS strongholds in the east.
Assad confirmed the army’s plans during a March 30th interview with RIA Novosti (Sputnik), saying: “Of course, after the liberation of Palmyra, we must move on to neighbouring regions that lead to the eastern parts of the country, such as Deir ez-Zor. At the same time, we need to begin work in the direction of Raqqa, which is Islamic State’s main stronghold.”
The army was closing in on the city of Al-Qaryatayn near Homs, north of Damascus, and planned to regain control of Al-Sukhnah, east of Palmyra, in addition to areas in Deir ez-Zor governorate, said Homs governor Talal al-Barazi.
Observers in Damascus put the army advances down to what they said was a new Russian-US understanding that would leave Russian-backed Syrian government forces fighting ISIS around Palmyra and Deir ez-Zor and moving in on Raqqa from the south. Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by US air cover, would engage ISIS north of Raqqa.
Suleiman said that controlling the roads between Damascus, Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa allows the army to take control of the border crossing of al-Tanf on the Syrian-Iraqi border. Also, reaching Raqqa before the operation for the liberation of the Iraqi city of Mosul is launched in June would prevent ISIS fighters retreating to the group’s stronghold in Syria. According to field reports, Syrian Democratic Forces have effectively imposed a siege on ISIS on the northern outskirts of Raqqa.
Turki al-Hassan, a military analyst and retired Syrian Army general, said that if the military plan for Deir ez-Zor succeeded, it would “guarantee stopping any outside forces from invading Syrian territories”. He conceded that the Syrian Army was in a hurry to reach Deir ez-Zor before other forces, particularly the Syrian Democratic Forces, which seem eager “to pick up the pace to reach the city with Saudi and Jordanian backing”.
Hassan noted that while the Syrian Army was fighting for control of Palmyra, it conducted a pre-emptive operation towards al-Taim oil field in southern Deir ez-Zor and took control of Shoula village south-east of the city to prevent ISIS fighters reaching the area.
He admitted the danger of launching military operations deep in the Syrian desert and the difficulty of establishing army posts to protect the road. “It is, however, less difficult with the presence of Russia’s K-52 helicopters or what is known as the ‘Night Hunters’,” he said referring to Russian attack helicopters.
The Syrian opposition realised that after the ISIS defeat in Palmyra, Deir ez-Zor would fall into Syrian Army hands. “This is another proof that the Syrian regime is blocking in an accelerated way any attempt by other military forces to enter Syria for the sake of combating ISIS,” said Brigadier Asaad Awad al-Zubi, head of the opposition negotiating delegation.
According to confirmed reports obtained by The Arab Weekly, military units controlled by Syrian businessman Ayman Jaber lost about 100 fighters in combat alongside the Syrian Army in Palmyra, but are now preparing to retake the ISIS-controlled Khunayfis phosphate mines, 70km south of Palmyra. In return, Jaber will have the exclusive rights to exploit the mines for five years. The Khunayfis operation is also meant to prevent any forces, whether New Syria Army, made up of defectors from government forces, or other ground forces from outside Syria, from entering the area.
The Syrian Army’s control of Palmyra could facilitate expelling ISIS forces from Al-Qaryatain, which lies on a key road linking Palmyra with the Qalamun region of Damascus province to the west, as well as closing in on ISIS fighters in Hajar al Aswad and Yarmouk camp at the southern outskirts of Damascus.