The Assad regime retakes Palmyra from ISIL

by omouggos

Syrian troops gaze at the architecture of Palmyra (image from

The month of March has been sullied by numerous worldwide terrorist attacks. Due to our western-centric myopia, most are only aware of the ISIL attacks in Brussels, but that is just the tip of the iceberg. PKK and ISIL suicide bombers have struck the Turkish cities of Ankara and Istanbul respectively.[1] In Iraq ISIL targeted a soccer game killing around 30 people.[2] Reportedly on Good Friday an ISIL affiliated group in Yemen crucified a Catholic Priest.[3] While the most devastating attack occurred during Easter in Lahore Pakistan, where a Jamaatul Ahrar suicide bomber attacked a gathering of Christians at a park killing at least 70 people.[4]

Fortunately there is some good news which provides a welcome contrast to these terrible attacks. The Syrian army of Bashar al-Assad has retaken the city of Palmyra from ISIL.[5] Beyond being a strategically important city, Palmyra is best known for its magnificent ancient ruins, some of which were dynamited by ISIL after the group captured the city in May of 2015.

Ancient amphitheater of Palmyra, where ISIL conducted public executions.

According to Rami Abdulrahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the loss of Palmyra is the greatest blow yet against ISIL, with 400 of their fighters being killed during the battle.[5] Assad called “the liberation of the historic city of Palmyra” an “important achievement.”[6]

The recapture of Palmyra occurred rapidly thanks to the Russian air force, which according to DEBKAfile were “carpet bombing” ISIL positions.[7] In the preceding days Russian warplanes conducted at least 40 sorties against 158 targets, killing around 100 ISIL fighters.[8] With such support Syrian tanks and infantry were able to induce the ISIL contingent defending the city to retreat.

What is interesting about Russian air support in Palmyra is that ostensibly Russia is withdrawing the bulk of its forces from Syria and winding down its military operations there. Without Russian air support it was uncertain how Assad’s forces would perform against its enemies such as ISIL. It looks like even Putin shared such uncertainties, and decided to support Assad’s push for the strategically vital city of Palmyra.

Russian officials have stated that Assad has acknowledged to them that without Russian support the capture of Palmyra would have been impossible.[9] Based on the statements of Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov, it appears Russia’s air force “will continue supporting the Syrian’s army’s offensive.”[10] As such one shouldn’t take Putin’s withdrawals at face value.

Beyond the morale boost of capturing Palmyra and the fact that its antiquities–those that remain intact–are now in safe hands, although booty-traps and mines must still be removed from the city,[11] the most important consequence is that Assad’s army, backed by the Russian air force, will now be able to strike eastward at the heart of ISIL’s caliphate. Already has the Syrian army stated that its next targets will be Deir al-Zor and ISIL’s capital Raqqa.[12]

Undoubtedly, the capture of these two centers will not be as easy as that of Palmyra. The loss of Raqqa would greatly discredit and demoralize ISIL, as what kind of powerful caliphate has its capital conquered by the crusaders and rafida. While Deir al-Zor is a strategically important city because it controls access to central Iraq from Syria, and its loss would isolate Raqqa to resupply from the southeast.

With the loss of Palmyra and at least 20% of its territory over the last year,[13] ISIL can ill afford the loss of further strategically important territory and as such can be expected to put up stout resistance towards the advances of Assad’s army, regardless of Russian “carpet bombing.”

Another interesting implication of Assad’s recapture of Palmyra is that it discredits Western and Sunni propaganda that neither Assad or Putin are keenly fighting against ISIL. If these two are not keen on fighting ISIL, then how is it that they were able to retake Palmyra so swiftly? How can American officials keep a straight face while they denigrate Assad’s and Putin’s efforts against ISIL, when those efforts are just as effective, or even more so, than America’s own efforts against ISIL.

If we think about it, the retaking of Palmyra is, at the very least, equivalent to the Iraqis retaking Ramadi from ISIL. But when Iraq, with American support, retook Ramadi, the only enemy they had to focus on was ISIL. In contrast, Syria, backed by Russia, not only has ISIL to deal with, but a whole host of other rebel groups. Yet, in spite of this perfectly understandable dilution of their focus, Syria has accomplished just as much in the fight against ISIL as Iraq has.

So if the Americans say that Assad and Putin are not keen on fighting ISIL, by the application of the same standard of judgement, what does this say about their own efforts against ISIL? Either Assad and Putin are keen to fight ISIL, despite other distractions and mitigating factors or the US and Sunni allies are not energetically combating ISIL. In my view both possibilities are true.

Ultimately, it is heartening that ISIL is on the back foot thanks to the efforts of Syria and Russia. While the road ahead is still an uncertain and arduous one, hopefully this is a major step towards the defeat of ISIL, although it is one thing to defeat ISIL military and quite another to extirpate its ideology from the minds of many Muslims.

O Mouggos


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