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Palmyra: Damascus’s gateway back into Syria’s east

By Paul Iddon 28/3/2016
Syrian soldiers outside of damaged palace in Palmyra / AP Photo.
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 complete recapture.”

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 ongoing.

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 amphitheater.

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 insignificant.

Paul Iddon is a Rudaw reporter based in Erbil, Kurdistan Region.

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