PHOTO: Russian State media’s image of the Syrian military in Raqqa Province

Last week the Syrian military’s high-profile offensive against the Islamic State in Raqqa Province collapsed.

The offensive in northern Syria was launched at the start of June with the proclaimed aim of taking Taqba Airbase, overrun by ISIS in 2014, and then the Islamic State’s center of Raqqa city, held since autumn 2013.

The Syrian military and militia soon reached a roundabout about 15 km (10 miles) south of Taqba. However, the force halted there. ISIS then launched its counter-attack, including a series of suicide vehicle bombs, and reportedly drove the attackers outside the province.

The Oryx blog analyzes the reasons for the failure:

The regime’s recent offensive against the Islamic State aimed at clearing large parts of desert in Syria’s Raqqa Governorate of Islamic State presence took a drastic turn when a counter-attack spread chaos and fear among the forces spearheading the offensive. Completely misjudging the impending danger and incapable of properly anticipating the Islamic State’s counter-attack, the offensive collapsed. Instead of capturing large swaths of territory, the remaining regime forces were forced on the defensive, eventually being beaten all the way back to their starting point….

While some were quick to state the offensive was an attempt to capture the Islamic State’s capital Raqqa or even to reach the besieged garrison in Deir ez-Zor, the actual goal of the offensive was to capture Tabqa airbase and from there to move on to the actual town of Tabqa itself. Much of the confusion originated from the unofficial name tied to the offensive: “To Raqqa”, which actually meant this offensive was only the beginning of regime operations in the Governorate of Raqqa rather than directly capturing Raqqa itself.

If the attempt at capturing Tabqa would have proved successful, this would have completely cut off the remaining road connections to the Islamic State from the outside world, and allowed the regime to use Tabqa as a staging base for future operations into the Islamic State’s heartland. Thanks to the ambitious nature of the offensive, it could be seen as a gauge indicating the measure to which regime forces are capable of coordinating after the severe transformations it has been forced to undergo in the previous years. This is especially true after President Bashar al-Assad vowed to liberate “Every Inch of Syria from Terrorism” in a speech adressed to Syria’s Parliament on June 7, five days after the offensive had started.

The offensive appeared to have been timed perfectly to coincide with another major operation taking place against the Islamic State in Northern Syria. This offensive, carried out by the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF), was aimed at capturing the town of Manbij and the nearby Manbij Pocket. Holding this region is absolutely crucial for the Islamic State, as losing it could also result in losing the last remaining road connection to Turkey. It was previously thought that the Islamic State would prove unable to commit sufficient forces to two entire different fronts so close to each other, but time would eventually show just how false this belief was.

While a successful conclusion of the offensive thus would have seriously hampered the Islamic State’s capabilities to bring in supplies and foreign fighters via Turkey — not to mention the fact that cutting off the Islamic State’s sole remaining road connection to Turkey in general would be a major propaganda victory for the regime — neither the current military situation on the ground nor the state of the regime’s military allowed for such a zealous undertaking. In fact, one could argue that the very existence of this offensive in the first place rather than its catastrophic outcome is representative of the poor state of the regime and its armed forces.

Prelude to the Offensive

The regime’s intentions of taking the fight to the Islamic State rather than repelling and counter-attacking Islamic State offensives throughout Syria first became clear in early 2016, when the National Defence Forces’ Golan Regiment arrived in the town of Ithriya, from where the offensive would later be launched. The area around the town would see sporadic engagements aimed at testing the Islamic State’s capabilities and willingness to defend this area in the months that followed. This would later prove a catastrophic miscalculation, as the initial situation encountered around Ithriya was in no way representative of the Islamic State’s true strength and willingness to defend this important location.

Due to the sheer length of the front the Islamic State currently has to defend against a variety of factions, it cannot commit large numbers of fighters to a particular location. This is especially true for the area around Ithriya which, due to the flat terrain and lack of easily defended obstacles, is nigh on impossible to defend. Concentrating large numbers of Islamic State fighters here would be senseless, as they would not have any location to fall back to when routed, forcing them to flee into the open desert as easy targets for chasing regime forces.

Instead, the garrison deployed around Ithriya, defending the crucial Ithiriya-Raqqa highway, only consisted of a small contingent of Islamic State fighters. This contingent was beaten back by the regime’s first “probing offensive” in February and March, which was halted after the Islamic State launched a diversionary attack near Khanasir. As the Syrian Arab Army, National Defence Forces and Shiite militias stationed here proved incapable of handling Khanasir alone, all effort went into defending and later recapturing lost positions around Khanasir, effectively ending operations near Ithriya.

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