By Alexander Orlov

It’s no secret that the latest success achieved on the field of battle by the Syrian army troops near Deir ez-Zor, when it managed to break the blockade of this city and liberated the better part of its outskirts from the militants of ISIS may turn out to be a temporary success. The situation on the ground remains difficult due to the fact that Damascus had to strips other fronts from most combat capable units in order to make this breakthrough possible, weakening the defenses of its flanks in the ongoing struggle with the forces of international terrorism. In spite of a number of cheerful statements made over the last couple months by Syria’s officials, it’s still too early for celebrating. This has been proven by the unraveling military crisis near Deir ez-Zor that occurred at the end of this month.

When Damascus was relieving Deir ez-Zor, various military experts would suggest that an easy victory achieved in this city occurred largely due to a change in the tactics employed by ISIS. And they were right, since this terrorist group has simply withdrawn all of its elite combat-ready units from the city, leaving behind local militia and mercenary units. Instead those elites units would block the advancement of Syrian-Iranian-Russian troops, preventing a Shia pro-Iranian task force from reaching the settlement of Abu Kamal on the very border with Iraq. This city is instrumental in Tehran’s plan of supplying Damascus with weapons across Iraq. But the advancement was stalled due to the rigid resistance shown by elite ISIS troops supported by the forces dispatched from Raqqa, which is also being defended by local Sunni militia. Yet, the pro-American SDF forces are still unable to capture the city. Apparently it will take them at least 2-3 more weeks.

All this led to ISIS militants launching an offensive across a broad front from Palmyra to Deir ez-Zor at the very end of September, targeting Syrian communications lines in a bid to cut off the main Syrian military supply route – the Palmyra-as-Suhna and then the as-Suhna-Deir ez-Zor supply line. According to various reports, hostilities in the as-Suhna area alone resulted in at least 100 men losing their lives, while Palmyra found itself under attack too. In fact, a 20 miles long strip of the road that supplies Deir ez-Zor fell into the heads of radical militants. ISIS releases reports about dozens of killed Syrian servicemen. High casualties numbers on the part of the Syrian armed forces are hardly surprising, since all of the combat capable forces of the Syrian army have been sent to Deir ez-Zor, with their rear being covered by units of hastily trained soldiers that can hardly resist elite ISIS forces. It’s clear that the Islamic State is planning to occupy as-Suhna in the coming weeks if its going to be allowed to do it. If their offensive is not going to be stopped any time soon we may see Palmyra being besgieded yet again pretty soon. For ISIS Palmyra represents a major prize, since after its liberation Damascus rebuilt and restocked massive supply and ammunition depots in this city.

It’s only natural that under those circumstances the confrontation with local Kurds militants groups that are capturing Syrian oil fields becomes secondary. The Syrians are not able to fight at once with two opponents, since it doesn’t have enough forces to pull it out, while the forces it has at hand now are starting to melt, for instance, it’s been announced that Damascus lost at least 4 tanks in the Deir-ez-Zor assault.

It’s clear that Washington, while watching carelessly as Russia and Syria struggle against international terrorism, is secretly hopping that Moscow would dispatch a massive airborne task force to prevent the situation on the ground from becoming disastrous. However, such a move could be potentially catastrophic, since in spite of its ability to handle most any situation, Russia’s paratrooper forces may suffer serious casualties, which will mean that Russia will be drawn into the Syrian war completely, triggering the Afghan scenario, which would be highly beneficial for Washington.

The fact that situation is getting worse rapidly is evidenced by the reports that start coming from Palmyra that state that local defense forces are already engaged in firefights with radical militants. Moreover, the shelling of the city also allegedly began.

On September 29, a number of media outlets started distributing reports that as-Suhna has allegedly fallen in the hands of ISIS militants. Damascus was quick to send reinforcements to support the forces trapped in the city, but they were ambushed on the Palmyra-Deir-ez-Zor highway. Allegedly, 40 servicemen of the Syrian armed forces lost their lives in this ambush, including officers. In total, no less than 180 Syrian soldiers lost their lives at the end of September, including Chief of the Syrian Military Intelligence, General Abu Ibrahim al-Zabraoui who perished in a downed helicopter together with his pilot.

ISIS militants have also claimed the capture of the town of Shula at the crossroads leading to Deir ez-Zor from the desert. If the statement is true, then the Syrian forces defending the city are completely surrounded. This fact doesn’t mean anything on its own, since in order to secure their recent success they need to significantly expand the area they are controlling. However, how many more men they can deploy on the battleground is a mystery. However, the withdrawal a few weeks ago of all elite units from Deir ez-Zor can hint us that they are preparing a strike at the rear of the Russian-Syrian task force operating in the city.

The situation in Deir ez-Zor is being aggravated even further by the counterattacks laucnhed by Jabhat al-Nusra militants and other armed groups. Russian warplanes have been hitting armed groups in Idlib for days to prevent from launching an assault on Deir ez-Zor. Now Damascus discusses an armistice in this area in order to prevent the pontoon ferry across the Euphrates (to the left bank) built by Russian military forces from being destroyed.

Therefore, it’s no wonder that the discussions that Russia’s President Vladimir Putin has been holding with his Turkish counterpart Tayyip Erdogan were mostly consecrated to Syria. Right now Turkish armed forces play an important role in the situation on the ground, especially on their actions in Idlib, since Damascus is in an urgent need to transfer elite Syrian units from there.

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