On 28 September 2017, IS forces in eastern Syria launched the “Sheikh Abu Muhammad al-Adnani offensive“. The offensive is aimed broadly at government forces throughout the governorates of Deir al-Zour and Homs. The locations of IS attacks have been geographically disparate and its not clear that there is a set objective other than capturing as many government positions as possible.
Two days in, the offensive has become the most successful offensive operation launched by IS since their recapture of Tadmur in December 2016.
The offensive began on 28 September with a broad attack from the east on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway. IS captured the small villages of Kabajib and al-Shoula, near Deir al-Zour city. A separate group of IS fighters captured the two small hamlets of Albu Amr and al-Jabaylia, located several kilometers to the southeast of the Deir al-Zour Airbase. IS media, in what is almost certainly a greatly exaggerated claim, reported the death of 65 Syrian and Russian soldiers, the destruction of four tanks, and the capture of two Russian soldiers during these clashes. The Russians denied the claim of captured Russian soldiers.
IS opened 29 September with an assault on the T-3 pumping station, which is located to the south of al-Sukhna. IS briefly captured the station, but was later pushed back by government forces. IS claimed to have killed 34 government soldiers during the encounter. The only point in the T-3 area to be successfully secured by IS was the al-Hayl gas field.
The largest advance came to the east of al-Sukhna. While an attack on the eastern perimeter of the city was repelled, IS successfully captured a large area located 30 kilometers to the northeast of al-Sukhna. The points captured include the al-Baghala junction, the village of al-Qalia, and the Umayyad castle known as Qasr al-Hayr al-Sharqi. One unverifiable source claimed IS also captured the Najib gas field. In spite of several spurious social media reports to the contrary, IS hasn’t yet managed to capture the town of al-Sukhna itself. However, IS is reported to control critical positions on both sides of the town. If IS continues to press forward and a government counteroffensive does not materialize, the town may fall sometime over the next few days.
Other, smaller attacks took place across Deir al-Zour and Homs on the 29th. One occurred near the village of Humayma, a government-held hamlet located 100 kilometers southeast of al-Sukhna on the road to T-2 pumping station. Another reportedly occurred within the city of Deir al-Zour itself. No territorial changes are known to have come of any of these smaller attacks.
The most surprising attack, though, came in al-Qaryatayn. al-Qaryatayn was captured by government forces most recently in April 2016. It is located 70 kilometers from the nearest IS-held villages and 150 kilometers from IS’ primary zone of operations. An IS sleeper cell, reportedly based in the village of Hawarin, managed to capture the town due to an absence of soldiers. The stunning victory was short-lived, though, as government forces immediately entered the town and routed IS.
The attack on al-Qaryatayn is one of three behind-the-lines IS attacks during the past week in areas thought to be secure. Previously:
- On 26 September, IS raided eastern districts of Raqqa thought to be fully secure. At least 28 SDF were killed.
- On 27 September, IS forces managed to infiltrate the city of Ramadi, Iraq and were able to capture and hold several districts in the southwestern outskirts of the city before withdrawing.
This string of infiltration attacks is a signal that IS leaders have come to terms with the fact that their “caliphate” will soon cease to exist, and, in accordance, are developing guerilla strategies in preparation for the day after the last IS-held settlement falls.
In addition to the reports of IS gains, reports of successful government counteroffensives have popped up on social media; however, the majority of claims are yet unconfirmed. While many sources (1, 2, 3, 4) reported that government forces recaptured lost positions on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway, others denied such claims. The only thing that is confirmed is that government forces recaptured the al-Shoula oil fields. There is currently no hard evidence that any other points on the Sukhna–Deir al-Zour highway have been recaptured, and it is probable that IS still controls the road along with the villages of Kabajib and al-Shoula. Previous claims (made on the 28th) of al-Shoula’s recapture turned out to be false; it would not at all be surprising if the current claims are false as well.
Another advance was reported near the Deir al-Zour Airbase, where IS captured the villages of Albu Amr and al-Jabayliya on the 28th. One report indicated the Tiger Forces had “fire control” over Albu Amr while another report stated that the Army (without specifying a particular unit) had captured half of said village. If the Tigers are indeed advancing in that area, this, combined with a statement made by Ahmed Abdullah al-Omar, indicates that the Tigers’ next advance will likely be along the west bank of the Euphrates toward the IS capital of al-Mayadin.
Although government forces will inevitably recapture the lost areas like they did Tadmur, the last two days have shown that IS can still be effective and resilient on the battlefield. The attack on al-Qaryatayn in particular shows what kind of attacks may occur in the future once IS becomes a guerilla-only force.
A full-size version of the above map, which was made using data from Google Maps, can be found here. Please note: the map is only a rough estimate of control as definitive reports have been scarce and the status of many of the hills and hamlets that dot the desert landscape is not known.