All roads lead to Palmyra: Can Russia still be drawn into a protracted war with ISIS?

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May 12, 2016 – 

Sergey Strokan, Maksim Yusin, Ivan Safronov, Kommersant –

Translated by J. Arnoldski

The operation against the Islamic State organization (banned in Russia) in Syria has met some difficulties which threaten to undo the main achievement of Moscow and its allies in the fight against the terrorists, namely, the capture of Palmyra. At the same time, various sources have reported the Islamists’ sudden counter-offensive, which is attempting to cut the strategically important route between Palmyra and Homs. Losing Palmyra could threaten dragging Moscow into a protracted military campaign in which the key value will be controlling the world heritage monument. On Wednesday near Homs, the Russian Federation lost one soldier accompanying a military convoy. 

The second wind of the Islamic State

The London-based organization “Syrian Observatory for Human Rights” has reported that ISIS militants managed to cut off Palmyra from Homs and disrupt the supply chain of government forces. According to its representative, Rami Abdel Rahman, ISIS “was able to block the transport artery between Homs and Palmyra near the military airport of Tiyas, thus carrying out an offensive from the eastern district of Homs. Although these two towns are controlled by government forces, “violent clashes between regime forces and Daesh are continuing”, Rahman reported, calling the fighting on the far outskirts of Palmyra “a major ISIS offensive following the Syrian Army’s capture of the city with Russian support.” 

Publications covering ISIS’ attempt to seize the initiative appeared on Wednesday among several Arab and Western media sources. According to the report by the Syrian SANA agency, intensive firefights are going on between the Syrian Army and ISIS which have put the fate of Palmyra at stake. The newspaper As-Safir confirmed that “government forces are waging a fierce fight against ISIS at Jezal and are trying to regain control of the army barracks 10 km from the military airfield of Tiyas.” According to the newspaper’s data, the militants have seized two major gas fields, Shaer and Mahir, and have possibly shot down a helicopter of the Syrian Air Force (yet there is no evidence of this). The publication believes that if the Islamists break though to Havatima, then ISIS will have a direct route to Palmyra. 

According to a source in the Russian General Staff, government forces have managed to take control of the highway from Homs to Palmyra at the cost of mobilizing all available resources. However, firefights are ongoing south of the city (the latest clash took place not far from the military air base, 70 km from Palmyra). The source has said that “both the highway and the city are under our constant supervision. In order to defend strategic sites as necesssary, our air forces are involved and our specialists are working there.” On Wednesday, the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation acknowledged the death of a russian serviceman, Anton Erygin, who was critically wounded in Homs province where he guarded the cars of the Russian Center for Reconciliation of the Waring Sides. He was taken to the hisptial, where doctors fought for his life over tow days, but to no avail. The source added that Anton Erygin was posthumously presented a state award. 

The prospects of restoring the monuments in Palmyra

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Losing Palmyra on March 17th was the most serious defeat for the Islamic State on the Syrian front. The attempt by the Islamists to retake the lost positions seems logical. One year ago, when ISIS had just prepared its first assault on Palmyra, experts said that Palmyra’s specificity lies in that it can easily be taken, but kept only with great difficulty. They have turned out to be correct. At math end of May, 2015, ISIS entered the city with practically no resistance and dug in. Palmyra is somewhat of an oasis in the desert which can be easily cut off from communications, but defending the surrounding area requires too many forces. Bashar al-Assad’s supporters concentrating of forces in this dangerous sector is not easy. Government forces have suffered significant losses over the course of the civil war, and are compelled to simultaneously fight against a large number of opposition groups, including at Aleppo, where the situation has sharply deteriorated over the past several weeks. If the events in the far outskirts of Palmyra take an unfavorable turn for Damascus, then it cannot be excluded Assad’s army will not have enough forces to defend the ancient city by the time of the assault.

This danger is apparently known in Damascus. SANA reported “emergency measures” that have been taken by the Syrian Army particularly the deployment of additional units to the area east of Homs by the oilfields of Shaer, Mahir, and Jezal, which are of strategic importance to the Syrian economy (they supply electricity to the central and southern regions of the country). 

In Russia, the return of Palmyra to the control of the Syrian government was perceived as a symbolic turning point in the war with the terrorists. President Vladimir Putin has already discussed the question of restoring the ancient city with the general director of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, and Bashar al-Assad, who acknowledged that “the liberation of Palmyra would not have been possible without Russia’s support.” On May 5th, the concert “Prayer for Palmyra – Music Enlivens the Ancient Walls” was performed by the Mariinsky Theater orchestra conducted by Valery Gergiev. During the concert, a portrait of the 82-year-old Syrian archaeologist and superintendent of Palmyra, Khaled al-Assad, who was beheaded by the Islamists, was placed on the stage. 

However, Palmyra also remains symbolic for the militants of ISIS, one of whose tasks now is to rebuild its image shattered by a series of recent defeats. In the past several weeks, ISIS’ failure have ceased as government forces needed time to regenerate attack potential. After Palmyra’s return to Damascus’ control, reports appeared that the operation had been successful thanks to the active support of Russian air forces, and that the road to Raqqa, the capital of the self-proclaimed “Islamic Caliphate”, was not open to the Syrian Army. But no offensive has begun. Moreover, the latest news from Homs province indicates that triumphing over the Islamists might require much more time and effort than previously expected. 

“In fact, the Islamists have sharply intensified their operations, and their total defeat is still far off. At the same time, Russia, which has made Palmyra symbol of victory and has covered more on the map, cannot afford to stop halfway and lose face in the Syrian campaign. This means that Moscow can could be drawn into a new phase of a protracted military camp gain in Syria with unpredictable consequences,” Professor Grigory Kosach from the Russian State Humanitarian University’s Department of History, Political Science, and Law, explained to Kommersant. 

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