Gains of a three-week offensive overturned in two days, Syrian soldiers feared trapped in an ISIS pocket
In early June when Syrian pro-government forces launched an offensive against ISIS billed as having the ultimate goal of reaching and capturing the ISIS capital of al-Raqqa many observers asked if that was not too ambitious.
After all Raqqa was 200 kilometres away from nearest Syrian army positions and was bound to be heavily defended.
Of course, one could reason the offensive was merely in the direction of al-Raqqa but that its ultimate goal was merely the town of al-Tabqa on the shores of Lake Assad which is captured by Tabqa dam on the Euphrates.
Reaching Lake Assad would mean that ISIS territory would be cut in two so the potential rewards of a successful push were huge. However, did it really make sense to commit so many resources to a new offensive vs ISIS before the situation in Aleppo was at least stabilized?
Since April rebels spearheaded by Jabhat al-Nusra have been clipping away at territory held by pro-government forces in southern Aleppo. There was no major collapse of pro-Damascus forces, and rebels have been sustaining considerable casualties, however, bit by bit the latter have been gaining ground. Theoretically if this continues Aleppo may be threatened with renewed encirclement -- by the al-Qaeda-led rebels.
In any case the offensive was launched and made steady progress. Just days ago it was reported Syrian forces were some 5 kilometres from Tabqa airbase and 20 kilometres from the shores of Lake Assad.
The progress being made, however, was throught the emptiness of the desert which means the Syrians advanced on a single, narrow axis capturing the road but little ground to their left and right. -- Recreating the situation in Aleppo which allowed ISIS to briefly cut off the Syrians there in February.
Monday ISIS did what it does best: it counter-attacked when the enemy least expected it and where it was weakest.
The results unfortunately have been devastating. The entire offensive has collapsed.
Syrian forces suffered heavy casualties and reportedly withdrew in disarray. They ceded well over 50 kilometres of road they had previously captured and have vacated Raqqa province entirely. This also means they've ceded most of the gains they have made since the offensive begun three weeks ago.
Worst of all it is feared some pro-government fighters have been left behind, trapped in an ISIS pocket.
Hindsight is 20/20 as they say but in retrospect Syrians really should not have split their forces between Aleppo and Raqqa. The offensive into Raqqa province should have waited until Aleppo was wrapped up and al-Nusra neutered as the Syrian army clearly isn't strong enough to fend off al-Qaeda-aligned rebels and push against ISIS at the same time.
One thing to understand though is that pro-government side is far from a unified force. Firstly there are the National Defense Force militias which will fight hard in their region but who are reluctant to take part in fighting far away from their homes.
Next, a chunk of pro-government offensive capabilities are down to Hezbollah, Iranians, Russians, the SSNP party militia and even private armies. These may not all have the same idea of where they are the most needed and which battle they are inclined to participate in.
Iranians who have taken the brunt of casualties in southern Aleppo doubtlessly favored a focus against Jabhat al-Nusra. Russians on the other hand may have preferred a more politically convenient offensive vs ISIS.
Perhaps it was folly to imagine two major battles could be sustained simultaneously but it's also true things are far from simple for Damascus.
On the other hand the collapse of the Syrians in Raqqa will put added pressure on Putin to escalate the Russian intervention and hand initiative to embattled Damascus once again. This is something the Iranians have been calling for a while now.
Additionally with US officials and politicians angling for a job under Hillary Clinton running over each other to proclaim they would wage war on Assad it may be that Putin will see the wisdom of preempting the move and increase Russian presence in Syria to a level that might deter even Hillary Clinton, the destroyer of Libya.