In the first half of December 2016, the ISIS terrorist group launched a huge offensive on the ancient city of Palmyra. The assault utilised between three to five thousands Jihadists which had been trucked in from Iraq’s Anbar province to the Syrian province of Homs.
The multi-pronged offensive not only forced pro-government forces to withdraw from Palmyra, but also them back an additional 70 kilometres to the west of the city. It would be at the T-4 Military Airport, the last major obstacle before the city of Homs, where the Syrian Arab Army and its allies would make their stand.
From the middle of December to the middle of January, ISIS would make repeated attempts to isolate and capture the T-4 Airbase from the Syrian Arab Army. Around a dozen assaults from multiple directions on the military airport were made over this very tense one month period. During this time, ISIS also launched diversionary attacks on the town of al-Qaryantayn to draw away Syrian Arab Army reinforcements away from the Airbase. Moreover, IS forces drove a deep salient between the T-4 airbase and al-Qaryantayn, capturing the Tiyas crossroads and cutting the main communication line between the two areas. In the end, the pro-government forces rebuffed every single attack on both the T-4 and on al-Qaryantayn. Overall, hundreds of ISIS militants were killed in these forlorn assaults.
Onwards from the middle of January, the pro-government forces launched the first phase of their counteroffensive to retake Palmyra. The plan was to pinch out the salient to the south of the T-4 airbase, expand the buffer zone to the north, east and south around the military airport and create push back the front around al-Qaryantayn. All advances were backed up by powerful artillery bombardments and airstrikes provided by the Russian Aerospace Forces and Syrian Arab Air Force. By the early days of February, the initial objectives of the counteroffensive had been achieved.
From the first days of February, the Syrian Arab Army, supported by Hezbollah, continued the drive to the east, south and north. The renewed push was met with fierce resistance by ISIS how by this point had lost the operational initiative in the eastern Homs combat sector.
By the end of February, the pro-government forces completed the main leg of their dash to back to Palmyra, advancing some 37 kilometres to the east. Key sites that where captured along the way include the Jihar road junction, the Hayyan gas field, Western Bayarat, Eastern Bayarat, the Palmyra Quarry, the mountain of Jabal Hayyal and the Palmyra road triangle. With this achieved the Syrian Arab Army was in a position to storm the city itself.
Beginning on February 28th through the end of March 1st, the Syrian Arab Army began to systematically outflank ISIS defences in Palmyra. Key sites within the immediate vicinity of the city including the various mountains tops to its west, the town and hilltop of al-Amiyrah to its north and the orchards to its south were stormed. Control of the mountains to Palmyra’s west ensured that even if ISIS decided to put up a fight, then the Syrian Arab Army’s artillery would have complete fire control over the city, making any defensive stand a suicidal one. Thus it came as no surprise that the main body of ISIS forces around Palmyra started to conduct a general withdrawal to the east of the city, leaving only a small rear-guard contingent to slow down the pro-government advance.
By the 2nd of March, the Syrian Arab Army reached the western, northern and southern gates of the city. This put the pro-government troops in a position to storm Palmyra from multiple directions. Under these conditions, all remaining ISIS rear-guard forces in Palmyra withdrew to the east.
At this point the entire battle for the city was a forgone conclusion. On the 3rd of March, the pro-government forces officially entered Palmyra and began operations to clear the city of booby-traps which had been left behind by ISIS. A few hours after entering the city, the Palmyra airport was secured.
Despite the fact that there was no major battle for the city itself, the fighting outside of Palmyra in the months preceding its liberation was intense. Whilst pro-government forces lost hundreds of troops – likely between 200 and 300 – dead and wounded, the losses suffered by ISIS on the Palmyra front in terms of manpower and heavy weaponry was massive. Between December 2016 to March 2017, the terrorist group lost 19 tanks, 37 armoured infantry fighting vehicles, 98 pickup trucks armed with heavy weapons and over 100 other vehicles likely used for logistical purposes and as prime movers. In addition to this, some 1,000 ISIS militants were either killed or wounded. Thus, not only did ISIS lose the battle for Palmyra at the strategic level, they also lost the battle at the operational level.
In many respects, the pro-government forces still have much work to do in eastern Homs. First, there are more gas fields to Palmyra’s west which need to be liberated not only for sake of restoring these key economic assets, but also for the sake of creating a buffer zone around the northern flank of the Homs to Palmyra road. Secondly, there are a string mountain chains to both the north and southwest of the city which need to captured by the pro-government forces. To this end it should be understood that all these additional strategic goals will have to achieved in order to properly secure Palmyra from any future attack by ISIS.