'We are back': Islamic State aims for east Homs military airbase, advances as regime focuses on Aleppo

AMMAN: Syrian regime reinforcements arrived in the east Homs countryside to defend a major military airport from Islamic State fighters on Tuesday, two days after the latter recaptured the ancient desert city of Palmyra amidst reports of mass disappearances and executions.

The T4 military airport, located 50km west of Palmyra in the east Homs countryside, is one of the Syrian regime’s largest and most important airbases. On Monday, Islamic State (IS) fighters declared their intent to capture T4 and battled to within two kilometers of it amidst their ongoing ground offensive in eastern Homs.

After a night of fierce fighting and “non-stop Russian bombardment,” the fronts were relatively calm on Tuesday, a source in the IS-held vicinity of the airport told Syria Direct, requesting anonymity. Sporadic shelling continued from both sides, he said.

“The regime brought reinforcements towards the airport” on Tuesday, the same source said, requesting anonymity. “Planes are in the air every now and again but there are no strikes.”

Tuesday was the sixth day of an IS offensive in east Homs that began on Thursday with a surprise attack to recapture the historic city of Palmyra, 200km east of Homs city in the sparsely populated Syrian desert.

Advancing from the mountainous northwest, IS fighters battled loyalist fighters for more than three days under dozens of Syrian and Russian airstrikes before finally capturing Palmyra on Sunday.

Homs governor Talal al-Barazi announced the withdrawal of Syrian armed forces from Palmyra on Sunday. Syrian state media agency SANA confirmed the loss on the same day.

 An IS fighter rides a motorbike through Palmyra on December 11. Photo courtesy of Amaq.

Conflicting reports are circulating about the number of IS fighters involved in the attack on Palmyra and subsequent battles. SANA reported “more than 4,000 terrorists” attacked the city, while the Russian Defense Ministry estimated more than 5,000. A Syria Direct source near Palmyra alleged that fewer than 300 fighters attacked the city.

The loss of Palmyra comes more than eight months after a successful offensive by Syrian regime and Russian forces that drove IS out of the city in March of this year.

Video filmed in Palmyra and posted online by the Islamic State [IS]-affiliated news agency Amaq on Monday shows the town’s ancient ruins, empty streets in the town and several regime prisoners. In the video, multiple masked IS fighters repeat a message: “We are back.”

The recapture of Palmyra is fraught with symbolism. The fate of the ancient city draws international attention to IS, attention that has waned in recent months as IS hemorrhaged territory in Syria and Iraq.

Over the past two days since IS reentered the city, Syria Direct spoke with a handful of civilians—two of them citizen journalists—from Palmyra who are there and in the town’s immediate vicinity. Because of the significant risk they took by speaking with the media, no identifying information has been provided.

The sources described the days leading up to the battle in Palmyra, an atmosphere of terror there and civilian attempts to flee battles and airstrikes.

 A cache of regime weapons captured by IS fighters in Palmyra on Sunday.

One source alleged that in the days before the surprise attack, regime personnel had redeployed to the Aleppo battles, weakening the city’s defenses.

“Days before the battle began, we noticed regime forces move a large number of fighters and military equipment towards Aleppo city,” one civilian source told Syria Direct on Monday. He said that just before the Islamic State attacked, the number of Syrian army and militia personnel had gone down “from around 40,000 to 10,000.” Syria Direct could not independently confirm the estimate.

After IS attacked, hundreds of families living in Palmyra reportedly fled the city to avoid the airstrikes and battles. Some went to regime-held Homs, while others fled to nearby IS-held territories. Hundreds of others reportedly stayed in the city until the battles ended.

At least one source near Palmyra who spoke to Syria Direct on Monday said he and others tried to leave for Homs city on Saturday, but were stopped by regime forces who “stopped us from leaving and told us that the situation was secure.”

The source turned back, and the next day his hometown became part of Islamic State territory.

When IS moved in, they captured dozens of regime fighters and civilians, some of whom appear in early videos posted by Amaq. Local news pages since posted lists of the missing online, with dozens of names.

“Hours after entering Palmyra, IS captured a number of regime fighters who were not able to get out of the city,” one source told Syria Direct. Those captured were moved to IS-held territories nearby for interrogation, another source said.

On Tuesday, unconfirmed reports emerged of mass executions of those detained by IS, including a school principal and his family. One of the people near Palmyra who Syria Direct spoke with on Sunday was among those reported executed.

One Syria Direct source in the area alleged that 200 people had been executed since IS entered the city on Sunday. He claimed to have heard the number from IS fighters in the area he was in. He said IS fighters showed residents pictures of executions to demonstrate what happens to “regime agents.”

“Most of the executions were by shooting,” the source said, referring to the pictures. “Two people were beheaded.” He said he recognized the names and pictures of nine people he knew. Syria Direct could not independently confirm his account.

An infographic posted online by Islamic State propaganda arm Amaq on Tuesday reported 352 regime personnel killed and 22 captured. Amaq also reported fighters were “tightening the noose on the T4 airport” and alleged that three planes parked there were destroyed by shelling.

“Under the current circumstances, the Syrian troops are holding their positions near the city after having evacuated the residents of Palmyra and vacating the city,” Russian Defense Ministry Spokesman Major-General Igor Konashenkov told reporters on Monday.

“The [Syrian] authorities are doing everything to liberate the city as soon as possible,” he added. 

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.