AMMAN: The regime captured a key town in Homs province on Sunday, the second victory in as many weeks as part of a campaign to take back the fuel-rich east Homs countryside from the Islamic State.
The Syrian army’s takeover of al-Qaryatayn effectively cuts off Islamic State supply routes into the Qalamoun mountains that border Lebanon. The win also secures gas and oil pipelines running from the desert to a major electricity plant that powers Damascus.
Throughout battles over the last three weeks, the Syrian Arab Army, backed by Russian airstrikes, wrested control of the hills surrounding al-Qaryatayn from the Islamic State before moving in and capturing the city itself on Sunday. Last week, the regime also retook the historic town of Palmyra, 100km northeast of al-Qaryatayn, leaving the town of al-Sukhna, 168km to the northeast, as IS’s last remaining base in Homs province.
The regime’s capture of al-Qaryatayn has severed Islamic State supply routes originating in Syria’s north and east and leading into the Qalamoun mountains, in advance of an anticipated Syrian army and Hezbollah “Spring Battle” against IS there, according to reports by pro-regime Lebanese news outlets [e.g. see Lebanon2Day’s report here]. Syrian state media has not commented on the upcoming battle.
The Islamic State “has lost its most important road towards Qalamoun” after withdrawing from al-Qaryatayn, Shadi al-Halaq, a member of the pro-opposition al-Mashad a-Suri Network told Syria Direct Monday. Al-Halaq, who spoke from an undisclosed location inside Syria, is from al-Qaryatayn, which he says is about 70 percent destroyed and nearly empty of civilians.
Al-Qaryatayn “is considered the northern gateway into Qalamoun,” home to areas of IS control along the Lebanese-Syrian border “which have [now] become totally isolated from the rest of Syria,” said al-Halaq.
The Syrian regime controls most of the cities and hills in the Qalamoun mountain range, while IS has a presence in the Arsal foothills in northern Qalamoun. Other rebels, including Jabhat a-Nusra, hold ground in the south. The M5 highway connecting Damascus to Homs city runs through Qalamoun.
The regime also secured, through its capture of al-Qaryatayn, underground oil and gas pipelines originating in the Shaer fields in the eastern Homs countryside and heading west towards the Tishreen power plant near Damascus, said al-Halaq.
The immense gas fields remain under regime control, but gaining territory around them will maintain a steady supply of electricity to Damascus. The Shaer fields produce roughly three million square meters of gas, used to generate electricity at the Tishreen power plant that covers the capital, reported pro-regime al-Hadath News in November 2014.
A lack of fuel for electricity generators, due to the sabotage of pipelines and rebel targeting of oil and gas fields, Shaer among others, has caused a marked drop in electricity supplies across Syria. Production fell from 50,000,000,000 kilowatts in 2011 to 24,000,000,000 in 2014 due to fuel shortages, according to a copy of a report by the Electricity Ministry published by pro-regime Al-Khabar on March 10.