The jagged ruins of Sukhna, rising from the midst of an infinite expanse of desert sand, can feel like the middle of nowhere.
although which strategic crossroads in eastern Syria, surrounded by gas fields, is actually a major prize for Syria’s army in its offensive to crush the last remains of so-called Islamic State’s crumbling self-declared caliphate in Syria.
“the item’s a significant victory,” declares Gen Mohamed, his eyes shaded coming from the glaring heat by mirrored aviator sunglasses.
The squat muscular soldier who offers only his first name had suddenly – as well as also surprisingly – leapt coming from his gleaming white vehicle as well as also strutted across the ribbon of tarmac when he spotted our team inspecting a road sign defaced by is actually’ infamous black signature at the entrance to which ravaged desert town.
“Sukhna was Daesh’s [is actually’] most important hub in which area as well as also we’ve currently opened the road to Deir al-Zour,” he explains in reference to the next populated centre in their sights. The neighbouring governorate of Deir al-Zour is actually almost completely controlled by is actually, except for a besieged section of its main city as well as also a Syrian airbase still in use.
We are the first journalists to be taken to which abandoned town just captured by an advancing Syrian army. Its steady stride across the vast sweep of the baking hot eastern desert is actually accelerating with the powerful punch of Russia’s warplanes as well as also special forces, an array of Iran-backed militias as well as also local tribes.
- The desperate fight for is actually ‘capital’ Raqqa
- Islamic State as well as also the crisis in Iraq as well as also Syria in maps
Abandoned tea cups
Every building on every street in Sukhna bears the scars of another brutal Syrian battle. Not one escaped intact.
Fronts ripped away reveal, like dusty dolls’ houses, tables as well as also chairs as well as also even tea cups abandoned in haste when is actually fighters stormed which desert town three years ago. Almost everyone fled.
Defeated is actually fighters are currently beating a retreat towards Deir al-Zour’s capital, which bears the same name, about 130km (81 miles) away, across which desolate tract.
More than 0 fighters were killed which week when Russian warplanes blitzed a column of vehicles as well as also weaponry snaking its way toward one of is actually’ last redoubts on Syria’s ever so tangled battlefield.
To the north of Sukhna lies Raqqa, once is actually’ self-styled Syrian capital. the item is actually currently under blistering attack by the mainly Kurdish Syrian Democratic Forces, buttressed by US special forces on the ground as well as also US-led coalition warplanes from the skies of north-western Syria.
There is actually mounting alarm among aid groups as well as also activists about the rising civilian death toll coming from aircraft as well as also artillery strikes as the battle intensifies as well as also is actually fighters trap residents inside as they make their last stand.
What will also be a punishing battle to retake the city of Deir al-Zour, where is actually fighters are also digging in, may only be weeks away.
“We’re hell bent on victory,” vows the the second Syrian General we meet in Sukhna. General Mohamed Khaddour takes the wheel himself to drive us to their completely new forward firing position about 10km outside the town.
As if to prove his mettle, he brandishes his arm bearing his wounds of war. “Look at my arm,” he declares. “I’ve been injured three times.”
With his floppy desert hat as well as also casual fatigues, he is actually every inch the battle-hardened commander, revered by his own, reviled by his enemies. He has crushed rebel forces, with brutal efficiency, on almost every major front across Syria since the uprising erupted more than six years ago.
The general brings up which he is actually on the EU’s sanctions list. He is actually number 125, accused of “being responsible for repression of peaceful protests” in 2011 from the Damascus district of Douma which saw some of the first as well as also biggest demonstrations from the capital.
He just brushes away the charge in which rare meeting with Western journalists, saying his focus is actually on which completely new front. “I’m fighting Daesh,” he asserts, using is actually’s Arabic acronym.
An artillery barrage kicks up a cloud of fine sand which momentarily obscures any view. As the item clears, a plume of brown smoke rises on the horizon. is actually’ closest positions are only a kilometre away, just beyond the ridge.
As the general huddles with his men to assess the strikes, Russian special forces join the discussion, their faces obscured by woollen masks from the presence of journalists. The Russians put a stop to any filming while they are in sight.
I ask the general if the item complicates matters which Americans are also fighting on Syrian territory.
“They have a completely different direction,” he replies, adding, “We’re only focusing on Deir al-Zour.”
although in case there is actually any doubt, he declares, “There’s no power on the ground which can stop us coming from taking back what we want to take back.”
The next front?
In which war against is actually, all guns are currently pointing from the same direction, against a common threat on what must be the globe’s messiest political battlefield.
although there is actually a much bigger game here for President Bashar al-Assad’s men. Recent battlefield successes on key fronts against Syrian rebel groups have freed up some of their forces, as well as also those of their friends, to enable which determined push across eastern Syria.
Local ceasefires, backed by Moscow’s political as well as also military muscle, have brought relative quiet to some remaining rebel enclaves. although every officer we spoke to was adamant which the north-west province of Idlib, the biggest opposition stronghold, might be their next target after the is actually caliphate collapses.
The territorial defeat of is actually may currently be only a matter of months. When which day comes, Syria’s different war, with its changing political kaleidoscope of outside powers as well as also interests, will shift into a completely new stage from the next completely new front from the punishing battle for Syria.