Thursday, 21 May 2015

Islamic State captures Tadmur (Palmyra) in new sudden streak of offensives



In a surprising new streak of offensives launched at targets in both Iraq in Syria, the Islamic State has managed to capture the ancient city of Palmyra, known today as Tadmur. With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.

Tadmur, which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime's last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State's newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable.

The town of Tadmur is best known for the ancient Roman monuments and ruins, which, given the Islamic State's history with the destruction of historical sites, is now feared to be a target for vandalism. Although this aspect will likely incite a lot of coverage from Western media, it should not be forgotten that there are also thousands of lives at stake, with hundreds of casualties reported so far and many dead, despite earlier reporting from Syrian State Media that citizens were being evacuated. Of course, with mainstream media eager to find new stories that might interest a diverse public, events such as renewed poison gas attacks and the current offensive are less likely to be covered than a story on ancient Roman ruins in danger of destruction.

Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State's hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region.


Hundreds of ammunition boxes captured during the early phase of the Islamic State's offensive on the town just a few days ago give a clear indication of the amount of weaponry that is still likely to be present in the many storage bunkers littered around Tadmur.




Tadmur also serves as an important link in the production and distribution of a large portion of Syria's gas supplies. Whoever is in control of Tadmur has easy access to the numerous gas fields and pipelines running through the area, all of which now also under control of the Islamic State. And without access to gas fields, the Assad-led regime could face a huge problem in keeping Damascus, Lattakia and Tartus supplied with enough gas.

The ease with which the Islamic State managed to capture Tadmur is a clear sign of the increasingly worn military force that has been spread thin over regime-controlled Syria, and is now slowly running out of men willing to give their lives for the regime. While the situation for the regime has been already been dire before, Iran's and Hizbullah's involvement in the Syrian Civil War managed to stall the Free Syrian Army's advance throughout Syria, and eventually stabilised the situation for the regime early in the Civil War. However, this source of manpower is still finite, and Iran and the regime are increasingly forced to rely on other foreign fighters for their offensives, often Iranian jailed Afghan criminals and refugees, to carry the burden.

The offensive at Tadmur came as a surprise to many, and the quick victory must even have surprised the fighters of the Islamic State, which were until thus far unsuccessful in capturing any major towns, installations or army bases in Central and Eastern Syria since the fall of Tabqa in August 2014.



Tadmur was defended by the 18th Tank Batallion of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), the National Defence Force (NDF) and troops of Suqour al-Sahraa' (The Desert Falcons). No attack on the town or the region was expected, and as a result, the regime's miltary presence in Tadmur was minimal. With no reserves or reinforcements available, the regime's troops in Central Syria simply collapsed. Caught completely off-guard, the regime never had any real chance to hold the town against the fighters of the Islamic State, and Tadmur was thus lost as soon as the Islamic State attacked it.

Although the fighters of the Islamic State reportedly freed the remaining prisoners in Tadmur's prison, made infamous by the 1980 Massacre and after its reactivation in 2011 again one of the most notorious in Syria, it remains unknown how many of the prisoners actually survived. Executing any remaining prisoners before retreating has become a common practice for the regime, and Tadmur's prison is unlikely to be different.



Tadmur airbase, strategically located in Central Syria, has traditionally been home to an unknown squadron operating the iconic MiG-25PD(S) interceptor and MiG-25PU two-seat trainer. The airbase lost much of its value after the gradual retirement of the Syrian Arab Air Force's (SyAAF) MiG-25 fleet however, partially made-up by an increasing number of civilian flights. Nevertheless, the unknown squadron based at Tadmur was one of the last to continue flying the mighty MiG-25 'Foxbat'. A video released by the Free Syrian Army on the 8th of August 2012 confirmed some MiG-25s might still have been operational at Tadmur until 2013, or perhaps later. It is likely that the surviving aircraft remain stored in the sixteen Hardened Aircraft Shelters (HAS) found at the airbase.

The airbase also served as an important link in the transfer of arms and munitions to Deir ez-Zor. This role will now have to be taken over by T.4 airbase, located West of Tadmur and likely the next target of the advancing fighters of the Islamic State. Three radar systems, a JY-27, a P-14 and a P-12/18, located at the airbase were responsible for guarding the airspace above Central Syria, a capability that is now lost. This means the SyAAF won't be able to detect any aircraft in Central and Eastern Syria, a serious blow to the already crippled air defences.

The central location of Tadmur makes the town an important link in Syria's road network, and the capture of the town opens the gates for the Islamic State to expand their base of operations deeper into Syria. The next targets for the Islamic State will undoubtedly be T.4 airbase and/or Deir ez-Zor. Although it is also possible that the fighters of the Islamic State will march in the direction of Homs, or even Damascus, capturing Syria's most important airbase or consolidating its grip on Deir ez-Zor would make more sense.



The fall of Tadmur paints a dire picture for the regime's grip on the Eastern half of the country, and should their last base in this area (Deir ez-Zor) also succumb to the increased pressure stemming from a lack of supplies and constant attacks from fighters of the Islamic State, the image of the regime's firm grip on the largest part of the country will be destroyed. Due to the strategical position of Tadmur the fall of the city also means the Islamic State now has direct road access to many of Syria's largest provinces, including the city of Homs and the capital of Damascus.

8 comments:

  1. do we know if they definitely captured the ammo storage site?

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  2. Both the Ramadi and Tadmur offensives show a common theme that might be a better guide to future IS operations: misdirection.

    In Iraq IS allowed the Shia forces to take back Tikrit presenting an image of weakness, only then did they take a swing at a relatively poorly defended Ramadi.

    We see the same in Tadmur, IS has been pushed back heavily in Deir ez-Zor where most of the regimes fighting power in the East is based, rather than launching a frontal assault against the regime's main body they assaulted the poorly defended Tadmur instead.

    With that in mind I doubt they will try for a major assault in Deir ez-Zor, T-4 is more likely if they can find a weakness, all the rebel groups have been desperate to erode regime airpower and IS no better than anyone the advantage of doing that.

    In terms of the state of the regime, there are no obvious reserves of fighting power anywhere, unlike in 2011, Hezbollah if anything seems to be posturing for the regimes collapse by focusing on the border area with Lebanon (thus protecting it's fiefdom). The cumulative personnel and material losses compounded by the collapsing economy (and the weak financial positions of Iran and Russia) and the growing strength of the various rebel groups leaves the distinct impression that the regime's doesn't have a way back, but its got enough fight in it to hold out for a while yet.

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    1. good points with the regime. One would think its time for those Syrians that have been trying to stay neutral to pick a side which should benefit the regime who appears to be the most secular of all. There should be enough military age men in regime held areas to raise 20-30k troops in a short time if the right situation presented itself. I think the mass excodus of Iraqi volunteers last year has really hurt the SAA/NDF

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  3. Oryx, a few questions:

    - Are the Su-24s based in T-4?

    - How do you assess the chances of the SAA holding T-4?

    - There was much talk about the threat of an ISIS air force after Tabqa fell. Is there now a chance that ISIS could fly the MiG-25s? They may not be useful as ground attack aircraft, but as a symbol of ISIS ascendancy or as a kamikaze aircraft, they could be quite powerful.

    - How do you explain the consistent failure by the SAA to destroy abandoned weapons, ammo and equipment? I know that they are under pressure and that this can't always be done to perfection, but it doesn't seem that they make any effort. Look at that photo of ammo boxes. How difficult would it be to rig an explosive near those boxes, or even to throw gasoline on them to start a chain explosion? The SAA is now over 4 years into this war and has abandoned a huge number of caches and stockpiles. Why are they incapable of figuring out that they need to destroy or damage rather than simply abandon valuable military hardware and ammunition?

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    1. Even if the Mig-25s are still flying IS has no chance of keeping them operational themselves and even if they did (which they can't) the USAF would bomb them on the ground first. See Tabqa for what happens when IS takes an airbase. Anyway, IS's first mission is to hold Tadmur against a likely regime counter-attack.

      The reason the SAA is not destroying weapons is that at the moment of collapse discipline goes with it and its every man for themselves. Nobody wants to hang around to rig an explosive charge when crazed Jihadi's with a fetish for decapitation are streaming through their defensive positions.

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    2. Failure to destroy or damage abandoned weapons systems and ammunition has been consistent over 4 years and under a variety of circumstances. It has been observed in the contexts of long sieges, as at Minnigh airbase, where there was plenty of time to rig explosives or to plan for the destruction of hardware through crude methods. SAA even allowed sophisticated anti-aircraft systems like the SA-8 Osa fall into rebel hands, fully operational. One soldier with a sledgehammer could have prevented that. And this failure has been observed long before ISIS or JAN were participants in the war. You can see examples going back to the second half of 2011, when the SAA faced only a small force consisting mostly of defected SAA troops. Arguably, the SAA's failure to execute a standard order regarding abandoned weaponry may have been a strategic mistake, since the FSA suffered a severe shortage of weapons at the beginning of the conflict, and was only able to keep itself alive by capturing SAA weapons and ammunition. At this point, with foreign weapons flowing into Syria freely, captured weaponry doesn't matter as much.

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    3. ''- Are the Su-24s based in T-4?''

      Indeed, some are permanently detached to Seen though.

      ''- How do you assess the chances of the SAA holding T-4?''

      Fair.

      ''- There was much talk about the threat of an ISIS air force after Tabqa fell. Is there now a chance that ISIS could fly the MiG-25s? They may not be useful as ground attack aircraft, but as a symbol of ISIS ascendancy or as a kamikaze aircraft, they could be quite powerful.''

      Not a chance.

      ''- How do you explain the consistent failure by the SAA to destroy abandoned weapons, ammo and equipment? I know that they are under pressure and that this can't always be done to perfection, but it doesn't seem that they make any effort. Look at that photo of ammo boxes. How difficult would it be to rig an explosive near those boxes, or even to throw gasoline on them to start a chain explosion? The SAA is now over 4 years into this war and has abandoned a huge number of caches and stockpiles. Why are they incapable of figuring out that they need to destroy or damage rather than simply abandon valuable military hardware and ammunition? ''

      Most soldiers have no clue on the situation evolving around them, and only carry out their designated task: guard the depots. I'm sure most don't even think about the weaponry they leave behind, and why should they, it's not their task after all...

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  4. Excelent analysis, as allways, congratulation for your great work!

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