Saturday,16 December, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)
Saturday,16 December, 2017
Issue 1289, (31 March - 6 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

One eye on Palmyra

Syrian regime forces, with Russian support, have retaken Palmyra and are now eyeing even more important victories, writes Bassel Oudat in Damascus

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Al-Ahram Weekly

After three weeks of battle, Syrian regime forces, backed by sectarian militias and intensive Russian air strikes, managed to retake the ancient city of Palmyra this week after the Islamic State (IS) group expelled regime forces from the city without a fight in May 2015.

This week’s IS defeat is the group’s biggest loss against regime forces since it declared its so-called caliphate in 2014, and its second biggest loss in Syria after the battle of Ain Al-Arab (Kobane) against Kurdish forces in January 2015.

The Syrian regime has used the victory to show the West and the opposition that its military establishment is still intact. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said that the victory was “proof of the effectiveness” of his strategy against the IS group in contrast to the “futile strategy” of the US-led international coalition.

Russia also seized the opportunity to affirm to the international community that Al-Assad remains strong and that it will continue to support him. In a telephone call to Al-Assad, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that Russia will continue to back the Syrian regime against terrorist groups.

During the three weeks of fighting that led up to the retaking of Palmyra, the Russian air force carried out nearly 1,000 air strikes that resulted in widespread destruction in the city and the displacement of its population.

More than 400 IS fighters were killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an NGO, while nearly 200 fighters with regime forces and militias fell in the battle.

The Syrian regime’s victory in Palmyra seems to have been closely planned by Russia, as the Russian air force played an exceptional role and Russia contributed its most modern tanks and artillery.

It also placed Russian officers in the operations room and allowed fighters with the pro-Iranian Fatimids Brigade and Hizbullah fighters to take part in the battle.

The regime’s retaking of Palmyra is important since nothing now stands in the way of its control of the rest of the uninhabited Syrian Desert, which would put more than 50 per cent of the country in regime hands.

Palmyra could constitute a forward base for the expansion of military operations as regime forces and their allies move toward Deir Al-Zor, the last IS stronghold on the eastern Iraqi border, and then on to Raqqa, the capital of IS in northern Syria.

Rami Abdel-Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, said that the goal of the regime is to reach the Iraqi border and open up the territory to Iranian support.

“More defeats of IS will now follow,” he said. “This battle has allowed regime forces to reach the outskirts of the Deir Al-Zor governorate and the Syrian-Iraqi border. Just reaching this border will permit Iranians to advance and provide reinforcements to the Syrian regime.”

But some Syrian opposition forces see other objectives behind the battle of Palmyra. Jabr Al-Shoufi, a member of the National Opposition Council, said, “Palmyra’s position is not the objective of the regime and Russia, which are in a hurry to show the world their accomplishments in fighting terrorism and could help break the Western siege on the regime when coupled with the present Geneva Conference.”

Said Al-Shoufi, “The world must not forget how the regime abandoned Palmyra to IS when it sought to pressure other states to boost its own status and exploit the organisation.”

The expulsion of IS from any part of the country is a gain for all Syrians, pro-regime and opposition alike, and the retaking of Palmyra with its population and antiquities is good news for both.

But regime control over Palmyra does not bode well for the opposition, which sees it as a case of the ancient city passing from one terrorist group to terrorists of another type. The opposition warned that the battle would also reinforce the regime’s faith in a military solution to the overall crisis.

The victory comes after nearly a month-long ceasefire between the regime and opposition, which coincides with the UN-sponsored Geneva negotiations. It also comes just two days after a four-hour meeting in Moscow between US Secretary of State John Kerry and Putin.

The outcome of that meeting did not bode well for the regime, with Kerry saying that Washington and Moscow will push for a political transition in Syria and that the two parties have reached a consensus over a joint government by June and a new constitution for the country by August.

No one has been able to explain the seeming contradiction between Russia’s political support for the conclusions of the Moscow meeting and its military support for the regime in Palmyra.

The victory will not shore up the consensus, but will instead encourage the regime to dig in its heels and perhaps spurn a political solution. It also suggests that Moscow remains on the side of the regime and will support a military solution.

For the Syrian opposition, there is a sizeable gap between Russia’s words and its actions. The day that Syrian forces took Palmyra, the spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, Maria Zakharova, said that Russia was “not supporting Al-Assad because he has not been our best friend, but a friend of the West. We are supporting the preservation of the legitimate government in Syria because if the president goes he will be followed by the government and the army will collapse.”

This statement has not convinced the Syrian opposition, which believes that the Russian military intervention has strengthened the regime and hardened its political stance in Geneva.

The opposition blames itself for not making military inroads like the regime and Russia. “After the declaration of the ceasefire and the Russian withdrawal, factions of the armed Syrian opposition should have immediately begun combat operations against IS and Al-Nusra Front, the two groups not included in the ceasefire,” said Iyad Barakat, a member of the Free Syrian Army (FSA).

“The armed opposition could have expanded its control on the ground just as the regime and Russia have, but disagreements within the opposition and the paucity of Arab and western support stymied such moves. Meanwhile, the regime and Russia used the ceasefire to score military victories against IS and political victories over the entire Syrian opposition.”

Observers believe that after the Palmyra victory, the regime and Russia will now turn toward the IS capital in Raqqa. However, Samir Eita, founder of the Democratic Platform, thinks that there will not now be a regime offensive against the city.

He said that the superpowers would not allow one party victory in the battle. “The Syrian army and its allies will not be allowed to bring down Raqqa alone, and nor will the Kurdish protection forces and their allies be permitted to take the city because this would cement the dominance of one Kurdish party over the Syrian Kurds and increase Arab-Kurdish tensions.”

Eita continued, “Raqqa will be taken through joint efforts of all these forces, not only to liberate Raqqa, but also to manage the post-IS phase. This is the core of the political process now underway in Geneva.”

The battle of Palmyra cannot be seen as a turning point in the military balance between the Syrian opposition and regime as the city was never in the hands of the opposition.

The regime abandoned it to IS without a fight in order to exploit the barbarism of the group and its destruction of antiquities to promote itself as the sole party able to protect Syria’s history and present.

The opposition fears that the victory in Palmyra was coordinated with IS to allow the regime to market itself as the winner in the fight against the group and in the hope that this will persuade the West to gradually reinstate ties.

If this takes place, the Syrian regime and Russia will have won a much greater victory than simply reclaiming an outpost in the Syrian Desert.

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