Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1248, (28 May - 3 June 2015)

Ahram Weekly

The loss of Palmyra

Did the Syrian regime deliberately stage the fall of Palmyra to Islamic State forces in order to garner support in the West, asks Bassel Oudat in Damascus

Al-Ahram Weekly

Tightening its control over a large area of land on both sides of the Iraqi and Syrian border, the Islamic State (IS) group is no longer facing imminent demise. Contrary to all expectations, the world’s most-hated terrorist group is now in control of half of Syria and has thereby gained access to untold wealth, including one of the world’s best-loved heritage sites, the ancient city of Palmyra.

In a recent offensive, IS seized two strategic camps in the north-west of Syria, acquired an arms depot in the vicinity of Hama, tightened its control over Idlib, and took the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq.

Experts and activist groups say that the army of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad is now in control of less than 22 per cent of the country, in other words the capital Damascus and just enough land to connect it to the coastal areas.

IS, meanwhile, has grabbed 95,000sq km of Syrian territory, or nearly half of the north, east, and centre of the country. However, less than 25 per cent of Syrians live in the areas controlled by IS, and Kurdish groups allied with the regime control eight per cent of Syria near the Turkish borders.

The opposition Free Syrian Army (FSA) and its allies control close to 25 per cent of Syria, mostly in the south and north-west. But recent victories by IS have nevertheless handed the so-called Islamic caliphate most of Syria’s oil and gas fields, nearly half of its power plants, and more than half of its wheat production.

The Kurdish-controlled areas in the north contain nearly 10 per cent of Syria’s oil and gas production, and of the 67 oil fields in Syria the regime is now left with only four, and it may not be able to hold on even to those for long.

The regime still has 13 natural gas fields out of a total of 19 in the country. It also has control of 52 electricity sub-stations out of a total of 95 in the country as a whole.

US intelligence reports suggest that Al-Assad now controls only 10 per cent of the total population and that he would not have been able to stay in power without the immense help given to him by the Iranians. The latter are backing the Syrian regime with units from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), Afghan and Iraqi militia groups, and Lebanon’s Hizbullah.

Iran has also spent more than $35 billion to keep Al-Assad in power.

The IS victory in Palmyra was remarkable not just because of its speed, but also because of the near lack of resistance in this strategic city. Because of its new control of the city, IS now controls one of the most important ancient sites in the world. Just as significantly, it has seized valuable military positions and obtained access to numerous oil and gas fields. Experts say the acquisition of Palmyra places IS at striking distance of both Hama and Damascus.

The quick withdrawal of the Syrian army from Palmyra was as unexpected as it was intriguing. Many have been speculating that the regime intentionally allowed IS to take over this legendary World Heritage Site in order to show the world the horror its possible destruction might involve.

In military terms, the recent moves made by IS seem baffling. In order to march on Palmyra, IS fighters had to march more than 200km in open territory in full sight not only of the forces of the Syrian regime but also of the international coalition that is waging a campaign against it.

Once in Palmyra, the militants faced virtually no resistance as they occupied Syrian army camps, seized a military airport, and took hold of a large weapons depot. According to locals, the fall of Palmyra was less of a battle and more of a handover between two armies.

According to Nasir Al-Thayir, spokesman of the Revolutionary Coordinating Committee in Palmyra, the regime’s forces pulled out of their positions in the city quickly and without resistance.

“There were almost no clashes between the two sides,” Al-Thayir said. “The city was practically handed over by the regime to the jihadists.”

He added that the regime had refrained from shelling the IS fighters who had deployed in the city in their thousands. Instead, the regime’s planes “shelled the only hospital in the city and destroyed it,” Al-Thayir said.

One European diplomat speaking on condition of anonymity admitted that Palmyra’s fall may have been staged by the regime in order “to spread panic in the West and rally support for the regime.”

According to the same diplomat, the regime is trying to pose as “the only safeguard against the jihadists.”

The fall of Palmyra could thus have been a “careful and well-orchestrated ploy to place the West between two options: either to back Al-Assad or be left face-to-face with IS,” he concluded.

However, opposition journalist Iyad Eissa sees no “conclusive evidence” of collusion between Al-Assad and IS, though the facts suggest the two are part of a political “proving game to promote their respective interests.”

According to Eissa, “Al-Assad made sure that IS fighters would replace his troops whenever the latter had to withdraw.” The regime’s aim is to “punish the revolutionaries and promote the regime’s image as the only party capable of fighting terror and protecting minorities,” he added.

Other analysts believe the regime is trying to consolidate its troops in the areas it intends to defend to the bitter end, namely Damascus, the coastal areas and a narrow strip of land that runs between the two. These, many assume, are the borderlines of what Al-Assad intends to rule as his future rump state.

If it is true that Al-Assad handed Palmyra to the jihadists to scare the West, his gamble seems to have worked.

Many Western officials now seem to believe that the priority now is not fighting the Al-Assad regime, but rather keeping the jihadists from winning more land. This would mean at least in part allowing Al-Assad to hold on to what he has left of land and authority.

As a result, the loss of Palmyra may well translate into a political gain for Al-Assad’s beleaguered regime.

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