Dramatic notes from an Officer on the frontline fighting ISIS

Syrian Army
Syrian Army

Back Story 

The chronology of events that led to the seizure of Palmyra (Tadmor) by ISIS was described by a Syrian Army Officer in a Special Forces unit known as the Tiger Forces. He was stationed at Palmyra (Tadmor) during the recent battles with ISIS. His unit was the last unit to leave after the fall of Palmyra.

Before condemning those who “ran” please know that these are groups of locals who are armed and trained for only a matter of weeks. The Syrian Army at times is spread very thin fighting throughout Syria on major frontline battles. They come and liberate an area or a town and then train the locals to defend themselves and repell future attacks. Often only a very small group of actual army members remain.

The following are the Officer’s notes:

Tadmor. Saturday, December 10, 2016. 8:00 AM.

Repeatedly incoming Russian satellite images alerting about the upcoming ISIS assault. We receive an alert about ISIS terrorists gathering around city’s perimeter. Air forces are busy striking ISIS at the oil fields to the north, not having enough time to react.

Al-Sawamea military object and surroundings (Grain Silos). Saturday, December 10, 2016. 10:00 AM.

The point is located 15 kilometers east of Tadmor on the Al-Sukhnah – Tadmor road.

City garrison:

– «Military shield forces» (military police volunteers), «Al-Badiyah forces» (internal security) consisting of several units – «Al-Saeemah», «Zenoubia», «Heart of Syria» and «Al-Sheikh Suleiman». About 1,800 fighters overall;

– Units from 11th and 18th tank divisions equipped with six 130mm and six 122mm artillery guns, 7 «Grad» MLRS (multiple launch rocket systems) and 12 tanks;

– «Liwa Al-Fatemeyoun» (Fatemeyoun Brigade) forces, with 1,200 fighters and lots of solid-looking military equipment;

– A unit of Tiger Forces, about 150 fighters, defending the weakest point southeast of the city.

So, 7 kilometers east of Grain Silos area, 2 ISIS cars and a tank moving through Al-Sukhnah road were spotted from the Jabal Tar hilltop where an observation post was located.

Air force commenced airstrikes destroying both automobiles. The tank kept moving. As it turned out, it was loaded with explosives – imagine a VBIED (vehicle borne improvised explosive device) of a 10-ton weight able to damage anything in a radius of 400 meters.

Due to unknown reasons, 18th Division’s «Konkurs» anti-tank guided weapon (ATGW) crew was not able to destroy the tank. When it was in about 200 meters from defensive positions, the armoured vehicle was hit with an anti-tank grenade launcher.

This would cause massive explosion. Soldiers started to retreat from their positions. After that, everything calmed down, as terrorists were preparing to assault Jabal Tar mountain.

Without any serious reason, troops started abandoning their positions all over the frontline. Withdrawal of «Al-Fatemeyoun Brigade» provoked panic among the other city defenders, especially when the latter saw how quickly the Fatemeyoun fighters were retreating with all their heavy weapons and equipment. Note that they retreated westward leaving the city instead of staying inside.

They were followed by the «Military shield forces» and 18th division units. On the other hand, 11th division soldiers withdrew to Tadmor itself and established defensive positions along city’s perimeter. Meanwhile, on the southeastern flank, only Colonel Sukheil’s forces, airport defenders and Air Force Intelligence troops remained (total number of about 100 soldiers).

Colonel Sukheil’s forces dispersed establishing temporary defensive positions on eastern and southeastern flanks.

Jabal Tar area. Saturday, December 10, 2016. 11:00 AM.

Jabal Tar mountaintop overlooks the city of Tadmor. Those who control it effectively control Tadmor and the road leading to the city. Usually, ISIS begin their assaults with suicide bomber attacks followed by direct close range firefights with the opposing party, in order to evade airstrikes. Tar mountain is a crucial link in city’s defensive perimeter. To possess it means to possess initiative. The initial garrison defending the mountain consisted of 500 fighters from Tiger Forces. However, by this day, it was almost halved because a lot of soldiers left due to a 5-month delay of salary payment.

Also, there were 2 defensive positions of 18th division units at Jabal Antar mountain.

The attack on Jabal Tar began with terrorists firing heavy machineguns mounted on 4 pickup trucks. Those trucks covered movements of 2 battle tanks. In addition to that, ISIS shelled Army’s positions with 130mm artillery guns and 120mm and 82mm mortars, as well as “hell cannons”.

Note that Jabal Tar did not have any anti tank weapons except for 2 tanks which were quickly destroyed with direct hits. Also, the defenders lost their 23mm and 14mm heavy machineguns.

Therefore, only infantry soldiers left on the mountaintop clashing with the enemy face-to-face.

Soldiers were able to destroy both ISIS tanks along with accompanying militants, in spite of their own losses. By 5:00 PM, the attack was finally repulsed. The Army lost some points, 18th division units withdrew towards T-4 Military Airport.

Tiger Forces withstood the attack, despite sustaining losses (there was a lot of wounded, several dead and a few prisoners captured by ISIS). For everyone who keeps asking where the air forces were, I’ll say: air forces are unable to support ground troops in such conditions [close-range combat], and thus their support was limited to striking terrorists’ supply routes.

Tadmor. Saturday, December 10, 2016. 5:00 PM.

Russians blew up an ammo depot on their military base in Tadmor before abandoning it. Sky above the city turned into a firework festival causing panic among the civilians and military personnel stationed in the city. As a result, the city was completely evacuated.

Tadmor. Saturday, December 10, 2016. 6:00 PM.

The city is empty. No civilians, no military, except for a couple of units of Mukhabarat (security police) and police (regular).

Head of «Al-Badiyah» security forces, along with several officers, would move back and forth in his luxury armoured “Cadillac” to prove the High Command that he did not abandon the city. At the same time, those 2,500 fighters of «Al-Badiyah» and «Military shield» were no longer in Tadmor, none of them were defending the city.

Only soldiers of the 11th division remained, along with their tanks.

We contacted our commander, reported the situation and requested immediate backup. Colonel Sukheil ordered to hold the positions and told us that reinforcements are coming.

Of all the other forces who were supposed to defend Tadmor – namely, 18th division, «Al-Badiyah forces», «Fatemeyoun brigade» – no one stayed, except for Major General Shawkat with his “Cadillac” and 10 officers, along with a pickup truck mounted with a heavy machinegun.

Tadmor. Saturday, December 10, 2016. 10:00 PM.

No reinforcements arrived.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 0:00 AM.

Some 100 fighters of «Fatemeyoun brigade» and 70 soldiers of the 18th division returned to the city.

11th division never left, and we salute them for their courage and resilience.

With these forces combined, we managed to reinforce the eastern flank of defense, more or less. Some 40 soldiers positioned themselves along the Al-Sukhnah road.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 1:00 AM.

An ISIS car bomb managed to sneak to 11th division’s positions at Al-Sukhnah road. Tanks were damaged, several soldiers killed and wounded. The rest stayed at their positions, despite what just happened.

We sent 60 soldiers to reinforce Al-Amariyah district and a hill of the same name which had been defenseless since morning. However, we left the 410 Warehouse area due to lack of manpower.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 3:00 AM.

Commander contacted us to clarify the situation. We are thankful to Colonel for being in touch and not believing the officials who lied about the real situation on the ground.

But the 410 Warehouse area was empty, and we were unable to secure that key point. Once again, lack of manpower.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 9:00 AM.

ISIS began their attack striking simultaneously at Jabal Tar and in Al-Amariyah neighbourhood.

During the night, a group of ISIS terrorists disguised as military infiltrated the neighbourhood, seized the Al-Amariyah hill and suddenly struck us from the rear. Another group of militants supported them from the 410 Warehouse area.

Control over Al-Amariyah hill grants control over whole city. Sitting on top of it you can just shoot everything that moves in the streets.

Jabal Tar.

Meanwhile, 4 tanks and 3 pickup trucks mounted with heavy machineguns attacked the Army’s positions at Tar mountain. Their defense was weakened due to cold weather and hunger. No reinforcements came. Jabal Tar fell after all the garrison was killed, wounded or captured as POW.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 11.00 AM.

ISIS controls Al-Amariyah hill, with militants targeting anything that moves inside the city. Jabal Tar is under ISIS control.

The rest of our troops were forced to retreat to southern part of Tadmor and position at Tadmor’s Triangle roundabout and in Tadmor Orchards.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 1:00 PM.

All the military personnel withdrew to Hayyan Junction, except for about 200 soldiers of Tiger Forces with 2 tanks and machineguns, to cover the withdrawal of the rest. Also, we still had those luxury cars of “Al-Badiyah” officers who proved to High Command that they had stayed in the city – but unfortunately, without their troops.

We positioned ourselves in between the orchards and Triangle roundabout.

Tadmor. Sunday, December 11, 2016. 2:00 PM.

We are surrounded by ISIS. Terrorists are in full control of the city and the highway. Nowhere to retreat.

Thank God we still have the General and his officers with luxury cars, who finally contacted the High Command and called in 6 Mi-28 attack helicopters to cover our retreat through the orchards.

They covered us from both left and right flanks. We managed to escape the encirclement.

That’s how Tadmor and the surroundings fell.

Syrian Army Tiger Forces officer *

* Two journalists, Eyad Al-Hussein and Omar Dirmama stayed in touch with this Tiger Forces Officer and documented his journal

Update since the Officer’s account.

December 16, 2016

ISIS unleashed several suicide bombers at the Syrian Army’s defenses along the Furqalas-Palmyra Road and Palmyra-Homs Highway. The massive explosions could be heard several miles away.

Following the suicide bombings, ISIS then stormed Syrian Army positions, resulting in fighting that lasted throughout the day.

The Syrian Army’s paratrooper division was then deployed to the western countryside of Palmyra.

The paratroopers dropped into the western outskirts of the T-4 Military Airport after the Palmyra-Homs Road was closed due to the security threat posed by ISIS.

ISIS was driven back. At least 70 members of ISIS were killed.

Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force carried out sorties throughout the day, thus enabling the Syrian Army to further drive back ISIS forces, killing at least 35 more militants before securing the T-4 Military Airport.

On December 18, the Syrian Army conducted a large-scale cleansing operation around the T-4 Military Airport and then expanded the buffer-zone around the perimeters.

December 21, 2016

Today, the Russian Air Force carryied out sorties on ISIS positions in the western countryside of Palmyra.

While the Russians attacked the Islamic State’s positions in western Palmyra, the Syrian Army fought off ISIS attacks that were attempting to infiltrate the T-4 Military Airport’s security box. During these attacks the Syrian Army killed more than 25 terrorists.

ISIS also suffered heavy equipment losses. The Syrian Army destroyed two tanks and three vehicles mounted with anti-aircraft machine guns.

The Islamic State’s failed offensive on this day took place three miles east of the T-4 Military Airport and 18 miles west of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Originally published with video footage at CheriBerens.

Cheri Berens lives in Egypt working as a researcher for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. She experienced Egypt’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions and witnessed the Muslim Brotherhood takeover and violence that followed.