Monday, April 4, 2016

Syrian forces take another town, Qaryatain, from ISIS and continue their offensive.

Syrian troops near Palmyra. Reuters/SANA

Syrian forces have continued their success in the fight against ISIS, taking back the town of Qaryatain. Reuters. The town quickly after Syrian troops liberated the city of Palmyra from ISIS last week. Both towns were taken back by the regime in an effort to protect the heavily populated western portion of the country. In addition to losing a base that ISIS could use to attack Syrian forces, ISIS also lost control of critical oil and natural gas pipelines as well as critical supply routes. ISIS had been cut off and mostly surrounded. Russia sent in as many as 40 airstrikes to help the Syrians capture the town. Qaryatain had a significant Christian population, but many of the residents were taken hostage by ISIS and brought to Raqqa. Syrian forces are now securing the area and removing mines and booby traps so the towns residents can return. 

My Comment:
Another major victory for the Syrian regime. Not to take away from the victory or anything, but ISIS control over Qaryatain was doomed as soon as the Syrians took back Palmyra. Once that city fell, it was fairly easy to surround the city and force ISIS to quit it. Qarayatain was at the extreme end of a huge salient, and the regime did the smart thing and tried to cut the town off. ISIS troops had to retreat or face being cut off completely. 

The regime taking back Qaryatain was not unexpected. What I am surprised with is the speed in which they were able to do so. Qaryatain fell only a week after the fall of Palmyra. Compared to the glacial pace of things in Iraq, it is almost amazing to see a town fall so fast after the liberation of another city like Palmyra. The last major victory in Iraq was Ramadi, and the Iraqis are having trouble taking back Hit even though ISIS mostly withdrew from central Iraq a while ago. 

Obviously, the Russians are helping this offensive. 40 airstrikes in Qaryatain alone is a major contribution and a large reason why the Syrians are having more luck in fighting ISIS then Iraq is. It's not the only factor, but Russia cares a lot less about inflicting casualties on civilians. This allows them to better target ISIS fighters and in the end it seems to be a better strategy. It may even save lives, as the battles tend to last less long when Russia is involved. The longer the battles take, the more people get killed and wounded. It seems clear to me that having a bit of collateral damage is a preferable outcome then caring so much about civilians that you get your own people killed, along with even more civilians caught in the crossfire. It's better to fight to win instead of tying one hand behind your back like our forces have done.

It will be interesting to see where the Syrian regime goes from here. From what I can see they have a couple of options. First they could head east and take back Dier Ez Zor, which has been an enclave of Syrian territory in a sea of ISIS for a very long time. Taking back a path to the city would make the difficulties in supplying and defending the area mostly disappear. It would also be a huge morale boost to liberate the area which has been under siege for a very, very long time. It would also go a long way towards cutting the link between ISIS forces in Syria and the ones in Iraq. 

Heading north from Palmyra is a much more tempting target. Raqqa, the de-facto capital of ISIS is another possible target, and probably the most symbolic target they could take back. Not only would taking Raqqa back deal a massive blow to ISIS entire government and military, it would also effectively cut ISIS in half. Taking Raqqa would make taking Dier Ez Zor back a lot easier and would cut off the ISIS forces located in the west from the rest of the country and from their bases in Iraq. 

Either prize would be a major victory for the Syrian regime. But can they pull it off? It depends. First they need the cease fire to hold. The main reason that the regime has been able take back these cities and towns is the fact that the Syrian rebels are, for the most part, not fighting the regime anymore. If that changes then this offensive could be over, and the regime could even lose some of the territory that they have lost. It would be a disaster. 

Second, they need to be able to deal with the threat that al-Nusra poses to their rear. Though most rebel groups have stopped fighting, al-Nusra has not and they are opening up a new offensive of their own near Aleppo targeting the highway to the city. If that offensive succeeds, then Aleppo could be cut off and would necessitate the cancellation of the regimes attacks in the center of the country. Al-Nusra has always been a major threat and they haven't been getting nearly as much attention from the Russians and Syrians compared to ISIS. They are a major threat and could complicate things considerably. 

Finally, the regime is racing against the clock. It is only a couple of months until summer hits and summer in Syria means that the fronts will become a lot more static. Fighting in the desert heat has the tendency to stop offensives dead in their tracks. If the regime keeps up the pace they are having right now, they might be able make a lot of progress before summer hits. But if they don't get close to their goals, ISIS will have three more months to prepare for any attacks.  

No matter what though, it is very good to see ISIS getting pushed back in Syria. For a while there last year it looked as though the regime would fall and ISIS would take even more territory then they had already. Russia's contribution to the war and the cease fire has completely changed the momentum against ISIS and it looks as though there is some hope that ISIS will eventually be defeated there. It will be a long, brutal fight, but it seems the tide has finally turned. 

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