Syrian soldiers outside of damaged palace in Palmyra / AP Photo.
Even before the Syrian military retook the ancient city of Palmyra from
Islamic State (ISIS) the army’s offensive was described more than once
as a much needed “symbolic victory” for Damascus. Such descriptions
failed to emphasize just how significant the recapture of this city from
ISIS is, both strategically and symbolically.
Indeed, the Syrian army general command says as much quite openly.
Palmyra, it says, will now become their “launch pad to expand military
operations,” which they claim will “tighten the noose on the terrorist
group and cut supply routes (in Raqqa and Deir Ezzor)… ahead of their
A forceful reentry to eastern Syria represents a worthwhile endeavor for
the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, now that it is maintaining a
shaky truce, brought about by US-Russian brokerage. It includes a
plethora of opposition groups across Syria, but excludes Islamic State
(ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. While ISIS-occupied eastern Syria is much
more sparsely populated than the west -- and of less strategic
importance -- the regime renewing a foothold there would nevertheless be
quite significant, especially one done with Russian support, which is
Palmyra’s recapture over the weekend has reversed one of two grave
humiliations the Syrian military faced in eastern Syria at the hands of
ISIS. The first was in Raqqa province in August 2014 and the second was
when Palmyra itself fell to ISIS in May 2015.
In August 2014, an ISIS emboldened by its astonishing success in
northern Iraq over the course of that summer launched an assault on the
Syrian air base of al-Tabqa. That base constituted the last foothold the
regime had in Raqqa and its dramatic fall signified the moment Damascus
lost all of that province to ISIS. The only other provincial capital in
all of Syria the regime has lost to its opponents was Idlib, which fell
to a coalition of Islamist groups in May 2015. That fall came as a
grave shock at the time, since the air base was believed to be well
fortified and manned by soldiers the regime and its supporters had
assumed could hold their ground.
Similarly, Palmyra’s fall was humiliating for the Syrian military, after
the garrison of Syrian soldiers there were subjected to a typically
sadistic ISIS mass-execution, carried out in the city’s ancient
Reversing these losses certainly has significant symbolic value for
Damascus as well as strategic value, given the fact that retaining
control over the east now, with decisive Russian air support, will
eclipse the American-led anti-ISIS campaign in that part of Syria, ahead
of the long-anticipated removal of ISIS from its Raqqa stronghold.
Also, if Mosul is liberated in neighboring Iraq in the coming months
after the Syrian Army returns in substantial force to eastern Syria, the
old Sykes-Picot border ISIS so infamously tore down in the summer of
2014 will likely be patched up again, given the salient fact that
neither the central governments in Baghdad or Damascus wish to see those
old orders dismantled. Nor, incidentally, do Moscow or Washington.
Russia’s intervention in Syria was foremost done in order to prop-up a
fragmenting Syrian nation state with a central client authority in
Damascus which, incidentally, does not necessarily have to be Assad.
Helping the state army regain control over the country’s east at the
expense of these jihadis is certainly in Moscow’s interest.
Damascus would also welcome the opportunity to link up with the garrison
of Syrian soldiers who have been holding out in Deir Ezzor and stopping
the entirety of that provincial capital from falling to ISIS for almost
two years now. Recapturing all of that city and using it as yet another
launch pad against ISIS in the east would bolster the regime’s standing
as it attempts to remain relevant and stake a larger claim over the
country than its numerous armed opponents have been able to.
The hardware the Russians have left in Syria after their recent drawdown
is quite telling. Forces committed to primarily deterring the Turks
from intervening in Syria – namely the S-400 air defense missiles and
Su-30 and Su-35 Flanker air superiority fighters – have remained, as
have sturdier Su-24 Fencer attack planes and helicopter gunships.
Indeed, some newer gunships have reportedly replaced ones which have
returned home. Such hardware is ideal for a protracted low-level effort
against ISIS in the east, especially if the Russians use Kamishly
Airport in Hasakah province and the airport in a recaptured Deir Ezzor
for their gunships, which would enable them to strike ISIS’s Raqqa
stronghold from multiple directions in support of Syrian ground forces.
Whatever the case turns out to be in the coming weeks and months, the
recapture of Palmyra over the past weekend certainly is not
Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.