Al-Sukhna, a small yet vital town in the middle of the vast Syrian desert, was captured by the fighters of the Islamic State in a swift, unexpected one-day long offensive on the 13th of May 2015. While the fighters of the Free Syrian Army, Jaish al-Islam, Jabhat al-Nusra and the Islamic State (still called ISIS at the time) had already captured the strategically located village back in October 2013, they never succeeded in holding it for long, and al-Sukhna was back under regime-control after just one week.
While the largely Sunni town of al-Sukhna itself isn't home to any important military sites, and military presence had previously only been negligible, the town is located next to the highly important M20 highway, making it a crucial link in the road running all the way from Damascus to Tadmur (Palmyra) and ultimately Deir ez-Zor. This highway is absolutely vital for the Assad regime as it allows for resupplying its troops in Deir ez-Zor, and without control of the road, the regime won't be able to continue its struggle to keep it out of IS's hands, making the fall of the city a very plausible reality.
The town, much like Tadmur, also serves as an important link in the production and distribution of a large portion of Syria's gas supplies. As the Islamic State is now occupying both Tadmur and al-Sukhna, it has easy access to and thus control over the numerous gas fields and pipelines running through the area, denying the Assad-regime much-needed resources.
While the regime quickly recaptured al-Sukhna back in October 2013, it remains to be seen if the National Defence Force (NDF) and Suqour al-Sahraa' (Desert Falcons) have the will, manpower, resources and equipment to establish a new line of defence and hold off the Islamic State's advance in Central Syria after the fall of Tadmur, let alone to once again retake the area. The victory at al-Sukhna and Tadmur will likely decide the ultimate fate not only of Central and Eastern Syria, but also might have far-reaching consequences on the regime's grip on Homs and Damascus.
Wilayat al-Badiya de-facto thus ceased to exist, and the Islamic State ceased its offensive in the region to focus on other, then more important, frontiers. The months that followed did see a series of renewed fierce clashes between the fighters of the Islamic State, the NDF and Suqour al-Sahraa' throughout Central Syria. Heavily supported by the Syrian Arab Air Force (SyAAF), the NDF and Suqour al-Sahraa' managed to push the fighters of the Islamic State away from the outskirts of Syria's most important airbase: T.4, home of the SyAAF's dreaded Su-24M2s.
These clashes symbolise the situation in Central Syria, where regime-controlled towns, gasfields and military bases were only defended by small numbers of NDF and SyAA soldiers, the latter manning the heavy weaponry attached to the NDF. The fact that it is nigh on impossible to completely control the vast Syrian desert, combined with the dire lack of soldiers, means the regime is forced to rely on very light mobile units to stop the fighters of the Islamic State before they reach the often ill-defended but strategically important towns and gasfields.
Patrols conducted by Suqour al-Sahraa' and the SyAAF's SA-342 'Gazelles' were the regime's first line of defence in Central Syria. Tasked with finding the Islamic State's convoys travelling through the vast Syrian desert, reinforcements were called in when such a convoy was spotted. More Suqour al-Sahraa' fighters, fighter-bombers, helicopters were sent in to destroy the convoys. This tactic had so far paid off, but should just one IS convoy make it through undetected, the result can be devastating: al-Sukhna being a case in point.
The failed offensive on T.4 had somewhat calmed the situation in Central Syria, meaning the Islamic State's recent offensive caught the regime's troops in Central Syria completely off-guard. As there were no reinforcements available anywhere close, they simply collapsed under this unexpected pressure. It seems likely that even the fighters of the Islamic State didn't expect to push through the regime's defences in Central Syria so easily. Especially when considering the fact that IS is still publishing media in the area through the Wilayat Homs outlet, indicating that the Islamic State had not even planned a new administration for Wilayat al-Badiya. Of course, with the recents gains in Central Syria, it will now indubitably reappear as an independent province.
Tasked with the defence of al-Sukha was the NDF, mostly consisting of Alawites from Homs, and a limited number of fighters from Suqour al-Sahraa', further strenghtened by a detachment of handful T-72M1s from the 18th Tank Batallion of the Syrian Arab Army (SyAA), originally stationed in Tadmur. The various checkpoints littered around the town were manned by the NDF while the higher ground was held by a contingent from Suqour al-Sahraa'. Contrary to what has often been observed during the conflict, the T-72M1s were not used as static pillboxes, but rather utilised as a quick-reaction force deployed in between the defender's positions.
Fire support for the fighters of the Islamic State consisted of three tanks (one T-55, one T-62 and one T-72M1), a number of technicals, one 122mm D-30, various 122mm DIY MRLs, a number of mortars and ATGMs. Most of the heavy weaponry was brought in on tank trailers and unloaded just outside the town before the assault begun. A video covering the assault can be seen here (WARNING: GRAPHIC).
The amount of IS fighters involved in the offensive is not believed to have been higher than a few hundred, and were seperated into two groups, one tasked with storming the checkpoints, while the other group was to provide fire-support for the former. In an effort to help the latter group distinguish the assaulting IS fighters from regime forces, the first group wore blue head bands.
As is nowadays often the case during the Islamic State's offensives, its fighters made clever use of UAVs to scout the positions of the defenders before initiating the assault. These positions were subsequently targeted with tank, artillery, rocket, mortar and heavy-machine gun fire, keeping the regime forces pinned down and unable to return fire. As an unsurprising result of this heavy supressive fire most of the around forty casualties on the side of the Islamic State were suffered as a direct result of the close quarters combat that followed the storming.
The detachment of T-72M1s, now fully aware of the assault, rushed to the remaining regime-held ground to aid in the defence of the checkpoints. Aware of the presence of several tanks, the fighters of the Islamic State set up positions on the high ground overlooking the checkpoints, and subsequently ambushed and destroyed the two T-72M1s present with 9M113 Konkurs and MILAN F2 ATGMs. The impact of the 9M113 was strong enough to cause the main gun of the T-72M1 to fire, while the MILAN hit completely destroyed the other T-72, causing the turret to fly off.
The first effects of the fall of al-Sukhna will indubitably be felt in Deir ez-Zor, where regime forces continue to battle the fighters of the Islamic State for control of the largest city in Eastern Syria. The situation for the NDF, the SyAA and the 104th Airborne Brigade of the Republican Guard, which, despite rumours to the contrary, is still present in Deir ez-Zor, has suddenly turned for the worse now that the vitally important M20 highway has been lost to the Islamic State. Together with a limited airbridge, the road was the regime's only way of resupplying its forces in Deir ez-Zor.
Indeed, as the SyAAF's transport aircraft are unable to transport any kind of heavy weaponry , the regime-forces in Deir ez-Zor now have no means to replace any damaged or destroyed tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, artillery or MRLs, which were previously all brought in via the M20 highway.
Even though the contingent defending al-Sukhna only had access to a limited number of heavy weapons, the capture of the town also proved to be quite profitable in terms of Ghaneema (spoils of war). Although underwelming compared to some of the Islamic State's previous scores, the captured weaponry will certainly aid the Islamic State in any future offensives in Central and Eastern Syria. As is often seen, the amount of weaponry that was available to the defenders far surpassed their needs and capabilities.
The Ghaneema mainly included small arms and ammunitions, but also a few technicals, anti-aircraft guns, artillery and multiple rocket launchers (MRLs).
The fighters of the Islamic State involved in the capture of al-Sukhna later participated in the Tadmur offensive, and if the current upmarch (that has also seen the fall of Tadmur, T.3 pumping station, al-Tanf border post, al-Hail gas field and Iraqi Ramadi in recent days) continues in the same pace, they will indubitably soon be fighting at T.4 airbase.
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