President Bashar Assad’s forces may be on the brink of victory in Aleppo, but the Islamic State group’s recent recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra shows that the complex conflict in Syria is far from over.
The militants’ surprise assault on Palmyra over the weekend ran against the prevailing narrative that the group is permanently on the defensive in Syria and neighboring Iraq, and showcased its continued ability to launch surprise attacks away from the front lines.
It also provided a reminder that the Syrian war is more than the battle for Aleppo and underlined the enduring fragility of Assad’s military power in the absence of support from his Russian and Iranian backers.
So what does this recent victory for IS mean for Syria’s civil war, and what does it tell us about the the terrorist group?
The recapture of Palmyra isn’t strategically significant
A UNESCO World Heritage site dating back to the Neolithic era, Palmyra was once home to a stunning array of ancient treasures. But besides the presence of a military airport to the west, it holds little strategic value in the six-year civil war, said Michael Stephens, research fellow for Middle East studies at the Royal United Services Institute, a British defense and security think tank.
“It’s a very small victory for IS at a time when they’re still largely on the back foot,” Stephens said.
Still, he added, “a win’s a win” — and one likely to score symbolic points for the group’s critical propaganda operation.
The Islamic State group has a penchant for theatricality, and Palmyra was one of its favorite staging grounds during its 10-month occupation of the city. The group famously beheaded the city’s 82-year-old antiquities expert last year after he refused to reveal the location of hidden treasures, released footage of its militants gleefully destroying ancient monuments, and carried out gruesome mass executions in the ancient amphitheater.
Shortly after IS was driven out in March, Russia displayed its own understanding of the ancient city’s symbolic value when it flew in the Mariinsky Orchestra from St. Petersburg to play a concert in the amphitheater, a grand gesture meant to trumpet the triumph of civilization over barbarians.
“There’s a lot of emotion attached to Palmyra,” Stephens said. “It’s a small blow to the prestige of the Assad regime — but it’s not a sign that Syria is going to be swept up by the Islamic State again.”
Assad’s military might isn’t that mighty
The Islamic State group’s win in Palmyra says less about the terror group’s strengths than it does about “the general weakness of the regime,” Stephens said.
“What it reveals is that Assad is pretty much overstretched. He can focus on fighting on one front at a time, but not on multiple fronts.”
Syrian government forces, with the backing of Russian air support and Iran-trained militias, have all but destroyed the last stubborn enclave of rebel resistance in eastern Aleppo. And though the battle for the city, once Syria’s largest, has been the main focus in Assad’s war in recent months, it is far from the only fight in the war-torn country.
Stretches of Syria are now held by various internationally backed opposition groups, including Kurdish militias, moderate rebel militias, and jihadist brigades, some linked to al-Qaeda.
IS’s storming of Palmyra was opportunistic. This is in keeping with the group’s modus operandi of late, said Stephens.
In October, as a vast Iraqi coalition closed in on Mosul — the largest urban center under IS control — the terror group launched a surprise pre-dawn diversion strike on the northern city of Kirkuk.
‘IS is very adept at … the counterattack. They attack where the lines are weak.’
“Everybody, including the regime, was distracted by Aleppo this weekend, and IS clearly weren’t,” Stephen said. “They understood that that focus on Aleppo gave them a little bit of space to operate.”
Russia rushed in air support over Palmyra in an attempt to repel the jihadists on Saturday night, in strikes that killed about 300 IS fighters and briefly drove back the attackers, according to Russia’s Defense Ministry. But even Russia’s overwhelming air power was not enough to hold the town, as Syrian government forces, stretched thin by years of conflict, retreated Sunday.
“IS are very adept at being able to put themselves on the counterattack,” Stephens said. “They attack where the lines are weak.”
Assad is still more concerned with defeating rebels than ISIS
The fact that IS was able to sweep into Palmyra suggests Syrian and Russian military commanders were “guilty of taking their eye off the ball,” Stephens said.
“They were probably thinking that if they win in Aleppo, then this war is over by the middle of next year.”
Assad’s primary concern has always been staying in power. And by his calculations, that has meant that eliminating Western-backed rebels, such as those fighting in northern Syria, is a higher priority than dealing with IS, which has been able to retain control of stretches of the rural hinterland as Assad has focused on the fight against rebels in the cities.
These moderate rebel groups present “the only real threat to Assad’s political power, because they present an alternative,” Stephens said. “IS, of course, doesn’t present an alternative.”
Retaking Aleppo from the rebels has been a critical goal for Assad. Doing so would bring all of the country’s five major cities — the others being Damascus, Hama, Homs, and Latakia — back under his control, damaging the rebels’ prospects of being able to offer a credible alternative to his rule.
This in turn would strengthen Assad’s hand in leading his country after the end of the war, once an unthinkable outcome. It raises the prospect that his regime could even partner with other international players — including U.S. President-elect Donald Trump, who pledged on the campaign trail to “bomb the shit out of” IS — to deal with the terror group once the war with the rebels is won.
“That’s been the military strategy for a long time, to erode the middle ground, to present a black-and-white narrative in which eventually it’s either Assad or IS, in which case the entire world’s going to choose Assad,” Stephens said.
IS is far from defeated in Syria
Analysts from IHS Conflict Monitor said in October that IS had lost about a quarter of the territory it controlled in January 2015 as a result of both campaigns by the U.S.-led anti-IS coalition in both countries, and the Syrian government’s Russian- and Iranian-backed campaign against “terrorists.”
Still, as the weekend’s attack shows, it is far from a spent force in the region, controlling an estimated 65,500 square kilometers of terrain across Syria and Iraq. It retains the ability to drive back Syrian troops even in the face of Russian air power.
Much of that territory consists of “places Assad doesn’t feel he needs to control if he’s going to control the country,” said Stephens. But it also includes some good-sized cities: Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in Syria, and Mosul in Iraq.
U.S.-led efforts to target the Islamic State group’s sources of income have been a success, said Stephens, choking the group financially and forcing it to slash salaries for its fighters. But it is still able to tax populations living under its rule, and its fighters hold the Tabqa dam, Syria’s largest, giving it control of hydroelectric power.
Syrian government troops, backed by Russian air support, are engaged in a brutal fight to retake the ancient city from IS. And monitoring groups have reported the possible use of chemical weapons in an IS-held area to Palmyra’s northwest, provoking the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons to express “serious concern.”
Nevertheless, liberating Palmyra from IS for a second time should be a relatively straightforward proposition— under one condition, said Stephens: “If the Russians decide Palmyra is a priority.”