Syrian policeman in Palmyra's ancient Roman amphitheater before ISIS's May 2015 takeover. AFP file photo.
Islamic State’s (ISIS) assault on Palmyra over the weekend appears to be a concerted effort to rectify its incremental losses of territory in both Iraq and Syria.
The militants may well be trying to replicate their stunning and surprising takeover of that city, along with Iraq’s Ramadi, back in May 2015. On that occasion the Iraqi Army had just achieved its first US-backed victory since its infamous loss of Mosul, the recapture of Tikrit in April. Losing Ramadi was an enormous setback for Baghdad and the city was not wrested from the militants’ grip until the end of the following December.
In their only real victory against ISIS to date, Russian-backed Syrian regime forces managed to recapture Palmyra from the militants last March. They too had been humiliated by ISIS in Raqqa province in August 2014, when the militants besieged them in al-Tabqa airbase and routed them from the entire province. A subsequent offensive by Syrian regime forces into Raqqa province, to retake the city of al-Tabqa west of Raqqa city, in June ended in an abysmal defeat for them at the hands of the militants.
The latest attack on Palmyra comes after the militants have been forced from the major cities of Iraq’s Anbar province – Ramadi and Fallujah – and as they are completely surrounded in their largest city, Mosul. In northeast Syria, they have the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces’ (SDF) offensive, launched last November 6, to deal with. In northwest Syria they lost Manbij to the SDF in mid-August and are currently under siege in the city of al-Bab by Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) fighters. To Raqqa’s southeast they control most of Deir Ezzor province, aside from the provincial capital, where a garrison of Syrian soldiers has been holding out against their siege for over two years now.
Therefore, it makes sense for ISIS to push westward, where they are more likely to make a quick breakthrough, a breakthrough which is important for propaganda reasons and morale among its own rank-and-file. They have made similar moves in the past. Their loss of Tikrit was softened by the aforementioned seizure of Ramadi and Palmyra and their November 2015 loss of Shingal was overshadowed by the group’s infamous massacre in Paris that same month.
If ISIS is able to consolidate its takeover of Palmyra, it will pose a test to the Syrian regime and its Russian backers, since it will reverse their only victory to date against the militants in Syria. If ISIS does get another chance it will likely try and completely destroy the ancient UNESCO world heritage site this time around.
This would be a slap in the face to UNESCO and other proponents of the preservation of cultural heritage, as well as Moscow. Last May Russia invited journalists to witness the spectacle of the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra performing in Palmyra’s ancient Roman amphitheater, the same site where ISIS executed 21 Syrian soldiers simultaneously the previous July. To once again lose this site to the marauding militants, never mind having it completely destroyed, would be symbolically damaging to Moscow and Damascus and a propaganda victory for ISIS.
On Sunday the Russian press reported that Russian air power had managed to drive the militants out of the city; however, ISIS was able to regroup and reenter the city with very considerable force, at least 4,000 militants according to Syria’s own state-run SANA news. According to activists there, the militants are currently searching the city for any remaining loyalists to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
This comes as Damascus is heavily focused on crushing the remnants of its armed opponents in east Aleppo. They will likely want to continue securing as much territory as they can in that key province before diverting any significant resources and manpower to another attempt to retake and hold Palmyra.
If ISIS can secure their capture of Palmyra, destroy the site and terrorize the city’s populace once more, before either leaving or being driven out, they will have saved some face among their followers, who are no doubt beginning to realize that the caliphate’s days are numbered.