The city of Palmyra is under attack from the world’s most notorious terrorist group, and it appears that Russia has just let it happen.
Palmyra is a city in central Syria, half way between the ISIS strongholds of Deir ez-Zor and al-Raqqah and the Syrian regime’s central hub, Homs. The extremist group that calls itself Islamic State (hereafter ISIS) made major headlines when it captured the city in May of 2015 and began to destroy priceless artifacts and ruins, some of which dated back 2000 years.
Last summer, the Russian government spearheaded the effort to recapture the city from ISIS. ISIS withdrew, having barely fired a shot, and despite weeks of warnings that ISIS had planted mines and booby-traps all over the area, none of them seemed to have gone off. Quickly, the coalition that supports Assad — made up of Hezbollah extremists, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos, Shi’ite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, and Russian soldiers and private military contractors — recaptured the city. Russia’s real goal was two-fold: the capture of oil and gas fields in the area, and the symbolic victory of recapturing such an iconic city.
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Soon thereafter, the Russian government flew foreign journalists, and an orchestra, to the city to hold a public relations stunt to show that Russia was leading the fight against terrorism. Meanwhile, experts continued to warn that Russia and Assad were barely fighting ISIS at all, and most of their attacks were against moderate, CIA-backed rebel groups, some of which were actually fighting ISIS, and of course civilians.
The whole campaign was for show.
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Today there is breaking news that ISIS has launched a major campaign to retake the city. While Russia and Assad are focused on flattening and then retaking Aleppo, and bombing markets in Idlib province — both of which have no ISIS presence — they have ignored the threat to Palmyra which has been growing for weeks and now may be poised to lose the city.
Activists, sources in the Syria and Turkey, and ISIS itself report that the extremist group has recaptured some of the area around the city.
The Interpreter contacted Al Homsi for comment. He confirmed that he believes the city of Palmyra will fall:
“Daesh [an Arabic term for ISIS] is trying to control the city again. And there is no real resistance from the regime and Russia toward those attacks,” he wrote. Al Homsi told us that ISIS “has dominated the many sites in the vicinity of the city in two days,” and have now captured a key mountain that is only 4 kilometers west of the city — west, we might add, means that ISIS has cut the path that the pro-Assad coalition might use to send reinforcements to Palmyra.
ISIS, Al Homsi wrote, has been planning this strike for months, and Russia and Assad, relying on militias, have failed to counter the threat.
ISIS is also making these claims.
The question is why Russia and Assad would let Palmyra fall when they put so much emphasis into the capture of the city over the summer.
The simple and obvious answer is that Russia and Assad are distracted in their campaigns in the north, in Aleppo and Idlib. But the longer answer is that the capture of Palmyra was for show, and that show is no longer needed.
The Russian/Assad strategy has been to mostly ignore ISIS and focus on three main goals:
1. Crush the moderate opposition forces, particularly the ones with foreign support.
2. Drive refugees from Syria into neighboring Western allied states (states which are increasingly electing anti-migrant and pro-Putin governments) through bombing of civilians and infrastructure.
3. Crush the resolve of any opponents to the Assad regime who remain in the country, and crush the very idea of revolution.
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Palmyra no longer fits into this plan. The only reason Russia has ever targeted ISIS was to maintain the narrative that they were fighting ISIS in order to avoid international consequences. With the election of pro-Russian governments in parts of Europe, and with Donald Trump headed to the White House, Russia can focus on the key aspects of its plan in northern Syria.
There is another reason, though, why letting ISIS take Palmyra might be necessary — despite its recent victories, the Syrian military is in shambles. Large amounts of Syrian troops and equipment have been destroyed or captured in the fighting. Perhaps more than half of the Syrian military defected in 2011-2013, which allowed the anti-Assad rebels to capture large portions of the country. Many of Assad’s troops are not loyal, which is why they have been confined to base for years. Russia’s own estimates, which rely on Syrian military claims, suggest that Assad only has 20,000 troops it can deploy in the field — and the Syrian military is known to greatly exaggerate its strength:
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Since the groups that are supporting Assad make up the bulk of the pro-Assad coalition, ISIS may be a distraction that Russia and its allies cannot afford to focus on.
That said, the sudden fall of Palmyra may spark the pro-Assad coalition into action. Palmyra controls the key road that runs from ISIS-occupied Iraq to Homs and ultimately Damascus. Russia may not want to address this threat, but it may have to, especially since an increasingly-desperate and shrinking Islamic State may lash out in unpredictable ways if it smells weakness outside of its current zones of control.
— James Miller