Islamic State at the gates of Palmyra

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The Syrian regime has been sending reinforcements to the eastern countryside of Homs to thwart the Islamic State’s attacks in the Syrian desert.

The Syrian army has sent large reinforcements to the eastern countryside of Homs to stop the advance of the Islamic State (IS) and prevent it from storming the city of Palmyra.

IS attacks on the Syrian desert areas, specifically in al-Sukhnah and its surroundings, are not new, as the group has previously made several unsuccessful attempts to enter the area. However, the last attack, which coincided with the approach of Ramadan, bears new and more significant indications. This is especially true since it has been customary for the organization’s leadership to announce its strategic plans in conjunction with the month of Ramadan, after having made great achievements in the field.

A well-informed source in Palmyra confirmed to As-Safir that the Syrian army has brought in reinforcements, which arrived yesterday morning [May 14] to the gathering centers in Homs and its countryside. Reinforcements are now being distributed in hot spots, especially in Palmyra’s third oil station (T3) and the surroundings of al-Sukhna.

The main goal of the reinforcements is to stop the advance of IS militants by forming a firewall and new demarcation lines, in preparation for a counter attack or an attempt to regain the areas seized by IS during the past few days.

An IS media spokesman said that the organization managed yesterday [May 14] to control Burj al-Ishara, overlooking the city of Palmyra. IS also stated that the clashes reached the outskirts of the Palmyra prison and that some of the organization’s militants continued to bomb Palmyra’s military airport and the gas field with mortars and artilleries. They also targeted Furqlus gas company with Grad rockets, as well as the towns of Khitab and Masoudiya with heavy weapons. These two towns are known for being pro-regime.

In contrast, the source said that the Syrian army forces managed to stop an IS attack on the eastern district in Palmyra and to keep its militants out of the city. The source confirmed that there are no armed groups in Palmyra, which is currently witnessing a relative calm, interrupted by sporadic clashes.

Another source said that the “army units are deterring IS’ infiltration attempts of some military sites and points in eastern Palmyra. The army has incurred heavy losses in the vicinity of the towns of Hulaylah, Arak and al-Bouira and the third station in eastern Homs.”

On Wednesday morning [May 13], IS managed to control the city of al-Sukhnah east of Homs, the road linking Deir ez-Zor to Homs and al-Amiriya city, 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) north of Palmyra. The group also seized other sites, such as the officer housing units and al-Khatib station adjacent to Palmyra's industrial zone.

This progress is seen as a direct threat to the ancient city of Palmyra, especially since IS militants are now on the city’s outskirts after having seized al-Sukhnah. It is no secret that IS considers such ancient cities as top priorities to be destroyed, thus raising fears that Palmyra might face the same fate as the archeological city of Nimrud in Iraq, which was by deliberately bulldozed by IS.

IS has set many objectives to be achieved as a result of this attack.

First, it considers the Syrian desert a strategic and vital site, thus any progress in the region would secure and serve its strategic objectives on the ground.

Second, it wants to tighten the siege on Deir ez-Zor and prevent the Syrian army from channeling supply lines to the city. It is known that the city has been besieged for five months, and IS is banning movement from or to the neighborhoods under the control of the army inside the city. 

Third, IS has its eye on the oil and gas fields scattered in the desert.

By controlling al-Sukhnah, IS could cut the supply lines for the regions of al-Shaer and Jazal, which have been witnessing ongoing clashes for several months. The two towns are also home to numerous oil and gas fields.

Fourth, there are also the arms depots, the seizure of which is an important goal for the terrorist group, as it is always in need of more weapons since it has been fighting many battles simultaneously in Syria and Iraq.

In this context, there have been reports that bloody clashes broke out in the vicinity of the arms depots in west Palmyra, in the area lying between Jabal al-Mazar and Marbad al-Hissan. However, IS failed to make any advance.

Apart from these direct targets that IS is seeking to achieve in the Syrian desert, many indications suggest that this attack is a mere attempt by the group in Syria and Iraq to achieve an indirect goal in the future that is no less important.

A source close to IS stated that these attempts, whether in the Baiji refinery in Iraq or Palmyra in Syria and other areas, could be a prelude by the group’s leadership to create an appropriate climate based on some victories to celebrate the first anniversary of the declaration of the caliphate in June. This could be a way for IS leadership to announce to its supporters that “the group has overcome the most difficult phase of its inception, which is this first year, and it is here to stay and to expand.”

It has also been customary for IS to announce new critical strategies and events with the advent of Ramadan. In fact, in Ramadan 2012, the group announced the Operation Demolition of Walls. In Ramadan 2013, there was the Soldiers' Harvest campaign. In 2014, the group declared the establishment of the caliphate and declared Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi caliph. What will be the new operation for 2015?

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Found in: war, syria, islamic state, iraq, homs, caliphate
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