By: Christopher Kozak
Key Takeaway: ISIS has neither been defeated nor relegated entirely to the defensive in Syria despite a string of losses to Kurdish forces assisted by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes. Instead, ISIS has launched two major offensives targeting Syrian military positions in central and eastern Syria since May 6, 2015, likely taking advantage of the Assad regime’s preoccupation with recent JN and rebel advances in Idlib Province. A consolidation of these gains would leave ISIS in position to contest and potentially seize the most important remaining military installations in eastern Syria, eliminating any potential roadblocks to further ISIS expansion into the Syrian central corridor.
ISIS dramatically escalated its efforts against the Assad regime in eastern Syria over the past week, initiating two major offensives targeting several towns and military positions in Deir ez-Zour and Homs Provinces. These operations demonstrate that ISIS has not lost its offensive capability in Syria despite a string of significant losses to Kurdish forces supported by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes in northeastern Syria. The size and scope of these offensives indicates that ISIS may have made the strategic decision to direct a large portion of its combat reserves and materiel resources away from Kurdish territory in eastern Aleppo and Hasaka Provinces towards central Syria. This shift is likely motivated by a desire to reassert ISIS’s ‘narrative of victory’ following recent setbacks in northern Syria and in Iraq which have slowed the group’s operational momentum. The perceived weakness of the Assad regime following major victories by JN and rebel forces in Idlib City and Jisr al-Shughour presents an inviting target for ISIS’s expansion. ISIS may also desire to reaffirm its status as a prominent anti-Assad actor in response to the JN successes in Idlib Province in order to bolster its recruitment efforts among the Syrian opposition.
ISIS’s escalation in eastern Syria began on May 6, 2015, when ISIS launched a wide-scale attack targeting the regime-held sections of eastern Deir ez-Zour city. Clashes centered around the southeastern neighborhoods of al-Sina’a, ar-Rusafa, and al-Omal, all located north of the regime-held Deir ez-Zour Military Airport. ISIS seized the al-Jumayn Checkpoint in the al-Sina’a District after conducting a tank-borne SVBIED against the position. ISIS also made additional advances in the al-Omal and Jubaylah Districts after detonating at least two tunnel bombs under regime positions. On May 13, ISIS claimed to seize Saker Island in the Euphrates River north of the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport following a week of heavy clashes. As of publication, ISIS forces have capitalized on their control of Saker Island to stage attacks into Harrabesh District and other areas along the northern perimeter of the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport.
104thRepublican Guard Brigade commander Brig. Gen. Issam Zahreddine in Deir ez-Zour, late 2014
Photo Distributed by Al-Masdar News, September 5, 2014
ISIS’s advance in Deir ez-Zour has likely been enabled in part by the reported redeployment of regime Brigadier General Issam Zahreddine and his elite 104th Republican Guard Brigade away from Deir ez-Zour to the Eastern Ghouta suburbs of Damascus in early May 2015. The 104th Brigade played a key role in stabilizing frontlines between ISIS and the regime in Deir ez-Zour after its arrival to reinforce the SAA 137thBrigade in Deir ez-Zour in early 2014. The defense of Deir ez-Zour represented a key component of Assad’s “army in all corners” strategy, which called for pro-regime forces to maintain far-flung combat outposts such as the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport in order to pin the bounds of a unified post-war Syrian state and reinforce Assad’s claim to political legitimacy. The withdrawal of the 104th Brigade signifies a clear deprioritization of the Deir ez-Zour front by the Assad regime and suggests that recent rebel advances in western Syria may be forcing the regime to reevaluate the viability the “army in all corners” strategy.
ISIS applied additional pressure to the Assad regime on May 13, 2015, launching a second offensive targeting regime positions throughout eastern Homs Province. One element of the ISIS advance targeted al-Sukhna northeast of Palmyra, capturing the town after heavy clashes which killed nearly sixty combatants and left over one hundred wounded. On the same day, ISIS conducted a two-pronged offensive targeting the major regime strongpoint of Palmyra from the north and west, seizing the al-Amiriyah District north of the city and shelling the strategic Palmyra Military Airbase with Grad rockets. ISIS militants conducted raids targeting a large complex of weapon depots located northwest of Palmyra, while pro-ISIS social media accounts also claimed the seizure of several regime checkpoints surrounding the T3 Pumping Station east of the city. As of May 14, activists continued to report heavy clashes between ISIS and regime forces on the northern, western, and eastern outskirts of Palmyra.
ISIS Offensives in Central Syria, May 6 – May 14, 2015
The ISIS offensives targeting al-Sukhna and Palmyra differ dramatically from the previous pattern of ISIS attacks witnessed in eastern Homs Province. Previous ISIS operations in the region had emphasized rapid, mobile raids against isolated regime positions that were intended to inflict casualties and seize weapons while avoiding retaliatory airstrikes. In contrast, the recent offensives reveal that ISIS retains the desire and capability to secure and hold urban terrain. If ISIS can consolidate its gains, it will be in position to contest the Palmyra Military Airbase and simultaneously isolate the ground line of communication to the Deir ez-Zour Military Airport via the Homs-Palmyra-Deir ez-Zour Highway. ISIS’s advances in both Deir ez-Zour and eastern Homs Province threaten to undermine the remaining military installations in eastern Syria, eliminating any potential roadblocks to further encroachment by ISIS into the Syrian central corridor near Homs and Hama cities. The Assad regime suffers from long-standing manpower problems which force the regime to conduct a zero-sum balancing act across its many standing fronts and its forces have been further strained by recent opposition advances in both northern and southern Syria. This lack of a flexible combat reserve means that Assad will likely have to choose between devoting resources to face the emergent ISIS threat in central Syria or the advancing JN-rebel coalition in western Syria. In either scenario, Salafi-jihadist factions are set to make further territorial gains in Syria.