After Palmyra, Syrian army sets sights east in Islamic State territory

AMMAN: After recapturing Palmyra, the Syrian Arab Army is looking to push further into the Syrian desert towards Deir e-Zor, Raqqa and the Iraqi border in an attempt to cut off critical Islamic State (IS) supply lines, according to reports in regime-affiliated media.

The army’s control over Palmyra “represents a base to widen military operations that our heroic armed forces are undertaking against the Islamic State, from several directions, most notably Deir e-Zor and Raqqa, and will tighten the noose on IS fighters and cut off their supply lines,” the Army's General Command said in an announcement quoted by pro-government Al-Watan on Monday.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, began its latest campaign to recapture Palmyra earlier this month. Russian warplanes struck Islamic State targets in the city dozens of times from March 9 to 12 as regime ground troops advanced from the west of Palmyra.

Bolstered by reinforcements called in from Aleppo and Latakia, the Syrian army focused on capturing hills surrounding Palmyra in the battle's early stages. After taking the historic citadel on Friday night, which overlooks Islamic State positions inside the town, IS began to withdraw towards Sukhna, 62km northeast of Palmyra. The regime completed its takeover of Palmyra on Sunday.

If the Syrian army seeks to break Islamic State supply lines, the capture of the nearly 190km Palmyra-Deir e-Zor road “will cut off areas of IS control in Iraq from those that remain in Raqqa and its countryside, and eastern Aleppo and Hama,” Ridha al-Basha, correspondent with pro-regime Lebanese al-Mayadeen channel, told Syria Direct Monday from Aleppo.

But the road towards Deir e-Zor means passing through Sukhna, which is likely to be “a nightmare” for the advancing regime forces, Abu al-Abbas, a civilian originally from Palmyra, told Syria Direct Monday from Sukhna.

“The Islamic State is trying to re-group its forces that fled from Palmyra in Sukhna, and send car bombs towards Palmyra,” said al-Abbas.

Aside from Deir e-Zor, another “upcoming goal” for the Syrian army is to move forces southeast in the direction of the IS-controlled Tanf border crossing with Iraq, said Ridha al-Basha.

Capturing the Tanf border would cut off supply lines leading to Islamic State fighters currently located in the Qalamoun mountains in west Syria, said al-Basha. “Isolating those areas will prevent IS from heading towards the Lebanese border, and especially Tripoli.”

One pro-opposition journalist, a Palmyra native, told Syria Direct Monday that the regime’s capture of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site due to its Roman-era ruins, realized an “important goal on a political level.”

By recapturing Palmyra from the Islamic State, said Hassan al-Homsi, a member of the pro-opposition Palmyra News Network, the regime “has appeared as if it is the only force combatting terrorism in Syria.”

“That's that Assad wants,” the journalist said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin telephoned Assad to congratulate him for the recent victory in Palmyra, reported official state news agency SANA on Sunday.

“Palmyra has been destroyed more than once throughout the centuries,” Assad was quoted by SANA as saying during the phone call.

“Just as it was rebuilt before, we will rebuild it again so it can remain a treasure, and civilizational inheritance for the world.”

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.

Dan Wilkofsky

Dan Wilkofsky was a 2013-2014 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad (CASA) in Amman, Jordan, where he worked with Talal Abu Ghazaleh Translation and the Ministry of Social Development. He has a BA in Classics (Latin) and Middle East Studies from Brown University.