Palmyra’s fall boosts fears of Is­lamic State fire­power

Mil­i­tants may have seized air de­fense equip­ment

The Washington Times Daily - - WORLD - BY CARLO MUNOZ

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.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

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.

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