Un­der­stand­ing the Is­lamic State’s re­treat from Palmyra

Financial Mirror (Cyprus) - - FRONT PAGE - By Ja­cob L. Shapiro

The me­dia is awash with tri­umphant sto­ries of Bashar al-As­sad’s regime re­tak­ing Palmyra from the Is­lamic State. The only prob­lem with this nar­ra­tive is that ac­cord­ing to mul­ti­ple sources, Palmyra was not re­taken so much as it was given up. Ac­cord­ing to the BBC, the In­sti­tute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Syr­ian Ob­ser­va­tory for Hu­man Rights, IS with­drew from the city in the face of su­pe­rior num­bers and fire­power, and saved the bulk of its force in the city to fight an­other day.

Palmyra is a strate­gi­cally im­por­tant town for both the As­sad regime and IS, but not be­cause it is a UNESCO World Her­itage site. If there were more Ro­man ru­ins in Raqqa, the IS cap­i­tal, no doubt the rest of the world would be more out­raged over IS con­trol there. For the As­sad regime, Palmyra means strate­gic depth: if forces loyal to As­sad hold Palmyra and can project force around the city, the ma­jor pop­u­la­tion cen­ters of Hama and Homs are no longer on the front lines with IS. For IS, Palmyra is i mpor­tant be­cause a strong force could use it as a base from which to cut east and sep­a­rate IS forces in Syria from Iraq.

This is only the sec­ond time that the As­sad regime has taken the fight to IS. The last time was in a regime of­fen­sive in Aleppo prov­ince last Novem­ber, when, with Rus­sian sup­port, As­sad’s troops were able to lift the IS siege on Kuweires air base. That vic­tory was to be part of a larger op­er­a­tion that en­abled Syr­ian regime forces to gain the up­per hand against the rebels in Aleppo prov­ince. Now, the As­sad regime is tak­ing ad­van­tage of the (rel­a­tive) quiet of the cease­fire with the Syr­ian rebels to take the fight to IS at a strate­gi­cally sig­nif­i­cant point.

It would be a mis­take to read too much into the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the Syr­ian army based on an Is­lamic State re­treat from Palmyra. ISW notes that of the roughly 5,000 As­sadaligned forces on the ground in Palmyra, a sig­nif­i­cant num­ber are not ac­tu­ally part of the Syr­ian army. They in­clude hun­dreds of fight­ers from Iran’s Is­lamic Revo­lu­tion­ary Guard Corps, Iraqi Shi­ite mili­tias, Hezbol­lah and oth­ers, all backed by con­tin­ued Rus­sian air sup­port. Even if the re­ports are true – that Syr­ian gov­ern­ment forces are in to­tal con­trol of Palmyra – it does not mean a uni­form pro­fes­sional fight­ing force is about to con­tinue the of­fen­sive. Tak­ing Palmyra is the easy part. Main­tain­ing long sup­ply lines over hun­dreds of miles of desert to keep IS on the re­treat is much more dif­fi­cult.

This is not to dis­miss the sig­nif­i­cance of IS re­treat­ing from Palmyra. When we laid out the Is­lamic State’s strate­gic po­si­tion in De­cem­ber, we noted this area as one of IS’ key vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties. But that is one of the rea­sons we are cau­tious about view­ing this as an out­right vic­tory for the As­sad regime.

IS faced an at­tack from a sig­nif­i­cantly aug­mented force. IS fought fiercely at first, but when it was de­ter­mined that noth­ing could be gained from fur­ther en­gage­ment, com­man­ders in Raqqa told their fight­ers to fall back and live to fight an­other day. It is un­likely this hodge­podge of var­i­ous mili­tias and forces in­tends to set up shop per­ma­nently in Palmyra. And it is im­pos­si­ble for the As­sad regime to con­tem­plate an of­fen­sive into the IS heart­land. Field­ing the forces nec­es­sary to un­der­take such an op­er­a­tion would leave Aleppo and the Alaw­ite coast wide open to a rebel at­tack.

IS’ ca­pit­u­la­tion in Palmyra is not go­ing to be per­ma­nent. In May 2015, when the Is­lamic State over­ran Palmyra, the Rus­sians had not yet com­mit­ted troops and air as­sets to sup­port As­sad, whose forces were on their heels from var­i­ous rebel at­tacks in the north.

IS seized Palmyra be­cause it had the op­por­tu­nity to do so, and it will wait for fur­ther op­por­tu­ni­ties to arise in the fu­ture. In Iraq, when U.S.-backed Iraqi sol­diers and Shi­ite mili­tias took Ra­madi from the Is­lamic State, it still took months for this coali­tion to con­trol the en­tire city. Even then, con­trol was achieved only be­cause IS pulled back to the city of H¥t. Ac­cord­ing to the BBC, the sounds of bat­tle can still be heard in the east­ern parts of Palmyra. IS has had just un­der a year in Palmyra to lace the city with booby traps and other un­wel­come sur­prises for newly en­ter­ing forces. It is im­pos­si­ble to know how many fight­ers IS lost – num­bers range from 25 to 400, de­pend­ing on the source – but even if we ac­cept the larger num­ber, it still in­di­cates IS pulled out the bulk of its forces.

For IS, the most im­por­tant con­cern in Palmyra is not con­trol over the city. IS has to make sure that a sig­nif­i­cant mil­i­tary force can­not use Palmyra as a stag­ing ground for a ma­jor as­sault on more im­por­tant IS ter­ri­to­ries or stop IS’ abil­ity to move flu­idly through­out the Syr­ian desert. The goal then for IS has been to en­gage in var­i­ous spoil­ing at­tacks and guer­rilla op­er­a­tions so that forces in Palmyra are more con­cerned about de­fense than of­fense. Even if As­sad regime forces de­cided to un­der­take a broader of­fen­sive against IS, ev­ery mile ven­tured deeper into the Syr­ian desert would be an­other mile of the sup­ply chain for IS to at­tack.

So while the West de­cries the de­struc­tion of his­toric ru­ins and the me­dia cel­e­brates the “sym­bol­ism” of this IS de­feat, this out­cry has not made IS any weaker. The only way to truly af­fect IS strength is through en­gage­ments on the bat­tle­field that it can­not win. And no mat­ter the com­po­si­tion of the force that has put IS on the de­fen­sive, the os­ten­si­ble leader of that force is As­sad. As­sad has been many things to the West in re­cent years – from pre­dictable dic­ta­tor to civil­iankilling pariah and now to hero/re­li­able ally in the fight against the Is­lamic State. On March 24, U.S. Sec­re­tary of State John Kerry trav­eled to Moscow and met with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin and For­eign Min­is­ter Sergey Lavrov. In the press con­fer­ence af­ter­ward, Kerry noted that he be­lieved Rus­sia was “go­ing to try to get Pres­i­dent As­sad to make the right de­ci­sion over these next days to en­gage in a po­lit­i­cal process that re­sults in a gen­uine tran­si­tion and in peace in Syria.” Now, three days later, As­sad can claim an im­por­tant vic­tory against the Is­lamic State.

All of this is hap­pen­ing in the con­text of a com­plex di­a­logue be­tween Rus­sia and the U.S. about not just Syria but Ukraine. The bet­ter As­sad looks to the world, the less rea­son there is for the U.S. to in­sist on his re­moval in any po­ten­tial larger set­tle­ment. Kerry spoke of As­sad mak­ing the right de­ci­sion. As­sad seems to have re­sponded by start­ing a com­pletely dif­fer­ent con­ver­sa­tion about why he is valu­able to the U.S. in its fight against IS. The U.S. has in re­cent weeks as­sas­si­nated se­nior IS lead­ers and is lay­ing prepa­ra­tions to sup­port Iraqi and Kur­dish fight­ers in what will be a bloody bat­tle to at­tempt to re­take Mo­sul. The U.S. is also back­ing the Syr­ian Demo­cratic Forces to ex­ert pres­sure on IS from the north. But the rest of Syria, it seems, is be­ing left to As­sad and to the Rus­sians. The U.S. has to con­tinue to say it doesn’t like As­sad be­cause of what he has done in the past, but no mat­ter what the U.S. says, ei­ther di­rectly or in­di­rectly, As­sad has be­come a part­ner in the fight against the Is­lamic State.

And so forces loyal to As­sad now have con­trol over Palmyra be­cause Is­lamic State was un­able to fend off the Rus­sian-backed on­slaught.

Mean­while, the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion of As­sad’s im­age con­tin­ues and the world re­joices that UNESCO World Her­itage sites are out of IS hands, at least for the mo­ment. But the salient point is that even though IS could not win in Palmyra over the past three weeks, it hasn’t lost ei­ther. IS has de­cided to with­draw to more de­fen­si­ble po­si­tions. It is bid­ing its time and plan­ning its coun­ter­at­tack.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from Cyprus

© PressReader. All rights reserved.