AMMAN: The last Islamic State stronghold in Homs province did not fall over the weekend, contrary to recent media reports, Syrian army sources on the ground told Syria Direct on Monday.
The Islamic State “still holds the northern, eastern and central districts” of Sukhna, a desert settlement 200km east of Homs city, a Syrian Arab Army source told Syria Direct on Monday, asking not to be named. A second SAA source, who is not quoted in this report, gave a similar account.
Rather, SAA forces—backed by Russian and Syrian airpower—captured only the southern districts of the city on Sunday “without any clashes” after a sudden Islamic State (IS) withdrawal, the first source said. On Tuesday, regime forces were defending the newly captured positions from a “surprise IS counterattack,” he said.
The battle for Sukhna is part of an ongoing regime push towards government-held districts of Syria’s eastern Deir e-Zor city, where thousands of civilians and pro-government fighters have been encircled by IS since 2014.
If Sukhna falls to the Syrian army, 110 kilometers of desert, small towns and villages would remain between government forces and Deir e-Zor city, the Islamic State’s second city in Syria.
“Sukhna matters because it is the gateway to both Deir e-Zor and Raqqa,” the SAA source said. “If we take it, the way ahead is wide open.”
As pro-government fighters push eastward in Homs province, a parallel campaign southwest of Raqqa city has brought the SAA within 70km of Deir e-Zor city to the northwest, and cut off any potential advance by US-backed forces in the same area.
Syrian state news agency SANA reported a “large army advance” near Sukhna over the past several days, and on Sunday said that “SAA units have tightened the noose on the Daesh terrorists in Sukhna,” but did not report the capture of the city.
Regime forces and the allied Afghan Liwa Fatemiyoun militia currently surround Sukhna city to the north, west and south. In addition to controlling the southern districts, the regime reportedly has fire control of the western districts, and holds al-Tantour Mountain, which overlooks the city.
The SAA source told Syria Direct on Monday that it appeared IS had “withdrawn” the bulk of its forces from Sukhna prior to this past weekend's advances. He speculated that further withdrawals could occur.
“Either IS will fully withdraw from the city, which is likely based on our latest information,” he said, “or it will turn into urban warfare.”
A Syrian army drone’s-eye view of Sukhna on Sunday. Photo courtesy of War Media.
Islamic State fighters captured Sukhna from the Syrian regime in May 2015, just before a surprise offensive won them the ancient city of Palmyra, 50km to the southwest.
All 35,000 civilian residents of Sukhna have fled the city in recent years, an activist from the city told Syria Direct on Monday. Many residents now live in desert camps in nearby Islamic State territory, in the Rukban and Hadalat camps to the south along Syria’s southern border with Jordan, or in Raqqa and Idlib provinces to the north and northwest.
“Sukhna has been empty for more than 10 months because of the bombing of civilians inside by Russian and Syrian planes,” the Sukhna activist told Syria Direct on Monday.
The SAA source told Syria Direct on Monday that aerial bombardments of Sukhna had “not stopped for the past three months” and that “a percentage of the city’s districts have been destroyed, since there are only IS elements there.”