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Desperate ISIS Strikes Back in Surprise Counter, Passes Off Captured Russian Mercenaries as Regular Soldiers

ISIS depletes itself in a desperate counter-offensive in Syria, but not without achieving surprise and bagging some propaganda coups

This post first appeared on Russia Insider

To say ISIS has suffered great setbacks in the past month would be a huge understatement. The Syrian army has lifted the siege of Deir Ezzor, advanced deep into Deir Ezzor province, and finally yesterday finished eliminating the ISIS pocket in western Syria near Homs and Hama.

So ISIS did what it used to be famous for, but we hadn't seen for a while now—a surprise counter-attack. The counter-attack had an air of desperation around it and much like the German Ardennes offensive in December 1944 it didn't make real military sense. As the dust clears it is becoming apparent ISIS losses sustained in the offensive were not worth the temporary territoral gains.

That said, much like the Battle of the Bulge the ISIS counter-stroke did provide for dramatic moments and visible ISIS coups. 

Firstly ISIS succeeded in temporarily cutting off the road from Suknah to Deir Ezzor and briefly even threatened Suknah itself. Except for one short section the road has now been restored to government control.

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ISIS counter-offensive against Suknah-Deir Ezzor road kicked off September 28th

Next, ISIS fighters drove hundreds of kilometers through open desert—nominally controlled by the Syrian army—and in a surprise attack captured the town of al-Qaryatayn in western Syria, and deep behind the lines of the government army. Of course, ISIS is now surrounded there, as could be easily predicted, meaning this was really a suicide mission.

ISIS' trek to al-Qaryatayn where it is now encircled

Finally, during its advances ISIS has apparently captured two Russians. It has released a video showing what it claims is a pair of Russian soldiers captured on September 28th. 

ISIS has many Russian-speakers so it could have faked such a video, but that does not appear to be the case here since the two men have been identified as the 38-year old Roman V. Zavolokin and the 39-year old Grigory G. Tsurkanov, both Russian citizens without jihadi ties.

It is highly unlikely the two are active-duty soldiers seeing that the Russian military denies any of its soldiers have been captured in Syria. Indeed, one of the two even sports a large, bushy beard—totally contrary to military regulations. Plausibly they could be civilian support personnel, but the Russian blogosphere has found photographs of one of the men in an army uniform, which means the men are most likely private military contractors, possibly with previous Russian army experience.

Rumors of Russian mercenaries in Syria precede the Russian intervention there by two years, and their presence is by now accepted by most Syria-watchers. However the fact they became involved before Russia did, strongly points to them being in the employ of Syria, rather than Russia.

We're hoping for the best possible outcome for the two men, but realistically the prospects of any Russian nationals in ISIS hands are grim.

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