Palmyra’s fall boosts fears of Islamic State firepower
Militants may have seized air defense equipment
U.S. commanders are weighing possible airstrikes against Islamic State militants who recently recaptured the Syrian city of Palmyra, driven by concerns the group may have obtained surface-to-air missiles in the city and will use them against the U.S. and its coalition allies.
Fighters from the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, were able to seize a number “armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air defense equipment” after retaking the ancient city from Syrian government control earlier this week, Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters Wednesday. The loss was a major blow to the government of Syrian President Bashar Assad, even as his forces were celebrating a victory over rebel forces in the divided city of Aleppo.
“Basically, anything [Islamic State] seizes poses a threat to the coalition, but we can manage those threats and we will,” Gen. Townsend said during a briefing from Baghdad. “I anticipate that we’ll have opportunities to strike that equipment and kill the ISIL [fighters] that’s operating it soon.”
The Washington Post first reported that Islamic State fighters had obtained a Syrian SA-3 anti-aircraft missile system, as part of the weapons cache left behind by retreating government troops in Palmyra.
Gen. Townsend declined to comment on whether the terror group had possession of an air defense weapon, or what type of missile system they may have. The possibility that the Islamic State has acquired a weapon capable of taking out American aircraft is “complicating our life a little bit,” he added.
Launching U.S. strikes into Palmyra could put the American coalition in Syria at odds with Russian forces in the country, who are providing air support for Mr. Assad’s campaign to wipe out anti-government rebels in the country.
On Tuesday, the Assad regime secured its largest victory in the five-year civil war, forcing moderate Syrian rebels to surrender their enclaves in Aleppo, the country’s commercial hub and until recently Syria’s largest city. The fall of Aleppo came after weeks of intense bombing by Russian warplanes, which proved key in breaking the resistance based in the eastern portion of the city.
On Wednesday, Russian and Turkish envoys scrambled to salvage the cease-fire deal for Aleppo after reports claimed Iranian-backed militias fighting on the regime’s behalf were preventing civilians from evacuating formerly rebel-held areas in the city.
Evacuations were slated to begin Wednesday. Under the new terms of the deal, civilians and rebel fighters will begin evacuating the city Thursday morning.
Prior to retaking rebel-held eastern Aleppo, the Syrian regime’s highest-profile battlefield victory was seizing Palmyra from Islamic State control, ending the group’s nearly yearlong hold on the city. But an Islamic State counterattack regained control of the city last week.
Gen. Townsend said it is likely Russian fighters and bombers would take out any surface-to-air missile system the Islamic State may have at Palmyra, noting the weapon poses just as much threat to Moscow’s forces as it does to the coalition.
“I expect that the Russians and the regime will address it here in short order,” he said. “We’re watching that, [but] as soon as we have an opportunity, if the Russians [don’t], we will.”
But the situation in Palmyra has highlighted the increasing difficulty facing U.S. and coalition commanders in the growing overlap between the Islamic State campaign and Mr. Assad’s war against secular rebel forces trying to bring down his government.
“We have a civil war right next to our war,” Gen. Townsend said. “Imagine fighting one war with another war raging just beside, and sometimes overlapping our war ... here in Northern Syria. It’s certainly a complicator.”
Foreign students in Bosnia hold toy dolls to symbolize dying infants of Aleppo, Syria, during a solidarity rally in Sarajevo, Bosnia on Wednesday. The U.S. fears Palmyra’s fall will boost the Islamic State’s firepower.