Islamic State fighters are preparing for a major battle in a critical war-ravaged province, where government troops have successfully driven out rebel forces.
IS has been fighting Syrian forces in eastern Homs province for weeks, gaining ground in villages with hopes for an assault on the beleaguered central city of Homs.
In a video released on social media over the weekend, IS warned government forces that its fighters will advance on central Homs, showing fighters doing training exercises for the battle. The video featured what IS said are the bodies of Syrian soldiers who died in battles with IS.
“Homs is a natural area of operations for [IS],” said Nicholas A. Heras, a Middle East researcher at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. “[Their] would-be caliphate already has a long-established military presence in the contested areas.”
Homs has been decimated by war since 2012. The city was one of the first battlegrounds between rebels opposed to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and government troops. Thousands of soldiers, rebels and civilians have been killed and wounded in the fighting. Tens of thousands of residents fled, and those left behind faced urgent humanitarian needs as the embattled city was virtually cut off from international aid.
With the help of Russian airstrikes and Lebanese Hezbollah militants, government troops have maintained a grip on the city of Homs since 2014, ridding Homs of rebels and expanding their operations into the northern part of the province.
Oil for sale
In recent months, defeated rebels agreed to withdraw from Homs and allow humanitarian aid into the city, giving the city its first relative peace in some four years.
However, IS remains in control of much of eastern Homs Province and vows to use it as a base for further attacks.
Taking control of more territory in Homs Province would provide easier access for IS fighters to advance towards Damascus and its suburbs, connecting its territories in eastern Syria to the Syrian capital.
IS restarted operations this week of a major oil field in eastern Homs. Al-Shaer field was non-operational since IS militants regained control from government troops in May.
According to local reports, IS produces nearly 7,000 barrels of oil per day at Al-Shaer and analysts say profits from smuggling of the oil production will boost IS struggling coffers.
“Al-Shaer is a rich field,” said Tammam Baroudi, an economist at the Syrian Economic Forum. “It has large quantities of natural gas too.”
The reopening the oilfield gives IS some leverage in the conflict economically and politically, Baroudi said, adding that IS “is not only becoming fuel sufficient, it also has the ability to sell it to the (Syrian) regime, which means IS would have the upper hand in certain areas.” he said.
Opposition groups often accuse Syrian government of collaborating with IS fighters in oil dealings even as Syrian troops fight IS on the battlefield. Analysts say that middlemen conduct the transactions so that IS and Syrian brokers have no contact. The Syrian government has denied any alleged oil dealings with IS.
The Syrian government has pledged to stop IS from expanding militarily in Homs. State-run media reported on Monday that Syrian troops foiled at least two IS attacks and killed several IS fighters.
A local media activist, speaking on condition of anonymity from Homs, told VOA that having pushed out most rebels from Homs city, regime troops are in a better position to focus on battling IS in the countryside, having already driven most rebels out.
Homs is strategically important for the Syrian regime because it connects Aleppo in the north to the capital, Damascus, in the south.
It also represents a gateway to Syria’s coastal region where Alawites make up the majority. Alawites, viewed as infidels by IS, are the backbone of the Syrian regime in the country’s civil war.
For now, IS is setting sights on regaining control of the ancient town of in Homs province, according to local reports. IS was driven from Palmyra in March by Syrian troops. It continues to maintain a strong presence in several neighboring villages, staging occasional attacks on government forces inside Palmyra.
“Dislodging Assad from Palmyra again would be a propaganda victory for IS,” analyst Heras said.