[UPDATED] Eastern desert: Government advances in Tadmur and Raqqa, loses ground in Deir-ez-Zor

Clashes in the deserts of Ar-Raqqa have reignited as June 6th dawns on Syria. These clashes follow the onset of a recent government offensive into the heart of the country’s eastern desert, an offensive that aims to put even more pressure on the capital of the Islamic State, the city of ar-Raqqa.

On June 3rd, military commanders of the SAA announced the beginning of an offensive against the heart of the Islamic State’s territory in Syria, an unprecedented move that would require them to cover nearly 100 km of open desert and arid terrain. Despite the distance and the determination of Islamic State defenders, the SAA, aided by Suquor al-Sahara and assorted pro-government militias, managed to push nearly 30 km in the first day. Advancing from the Khanasser-Ithriya road that had been the scene of several engagements before, the SAA broke the first line of ISIS checkpoints and suffered minimal losses in their advance. The primary goal of this offensive, which is ongoing, is to reach the outskirts of ar-Raqqa and Tabqa Airbase, an important military base that the government lost to ISIS nearly a year ago. So far, the SAA forces leading the advance have met minimal resistance; this is expected to change as they push closer to Tabqa.

Elsewhere in the eastern desert, SAA and ISIS forces engaged one another in clashes of varying magnitude near Tadmur, Arak, and Qaryatayn. SAA forces have been struggling to regain control of territory lost to ISIS in and around Sha’er Gas Field, but have been making progress on the outskirts of Tadmur city. The grain silos and a number of checkpoints east of the city have been taken with some casualties reported, and several ISIS technicals were destroyed in heavy fighting near the town of Arak. Although the SAA has yet to fully commit to offensive operations in Tadmur, progress towards Mustadira Gas Field and Arak has been made in recent days. Progress has, however, been slowed by multiple SVBIEDs launched by ISIS, at least one of which caused significant casualties according to ISIS reporting sources.

In Deir-ez-Zor, ISIS has been slowly gaining ground to the south and east of the city, pushing back exhausted SAA defenders despite their resistance. ISIS forces have repeatedly been attacking SAA checkpoints to the south of the city, and have seized Thayyem Oil Field, Tell Thayyem, parts of Tell Thardah, and checkpoints close to the 137th Artillery Brigade base. Although pro-government sources contest ISIS claims of control on parts of Tell Thardah, it is evident that fighting is at least ongoing. It is unknown how many casualties either side has suffered. Russian airstrikes have been targeting ISIS positions repeatedly over the past couple of days, indicating a potential stepping-up of RuAF operations in the city.

UPDATE 2040 hours Damascus time, 6/6/16: SAA units, assisted by Suquor al-Sahara advance units and reportedly “Tiger Forces” soldiers, have pushed to within 20 km of Tabqa Air Base. Their advance through the Raqqa countryside has been fairly swift, and has yielded them control of four villages and a few significant roads. The SAA claims that 70 ISIS soldiers have been killed, but A3maq News Agency contests that claim; more conservative estimates are that around 50 ISIS fighters and 20 government soldiers have been killed so far, with no noted vehicle losses. Regardless, it is evident that the SAA is gaining ground quickly, and will be threatening Tabqa Air Base very soon at this rate.

In the Tadmur countryside, SAA and militia units advanced on al-Kaziyah and have come to within 10 km of the town of Arak, which controls Mustadira and Arak gas fields. Several checkpoints were captured with little losses on either side.

SAA regular soldiers advancing against enemy lines near Tadmur on Saturday, June 5th. Sporadic fighting has occurred in multiple locations in the eastern desert.

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