Why did Palmyra Fall? Military insider tells all, calls on anti-ISIS coalition to learn ‘bitter lesson’

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December 16, 2016 – Fort Russ – 

RusVesna – translated by J. Arnoldski – 

A military source has told Russian Spring of some of the details of the battle for Palmyra in an exclusive interview. 

Did intelligence know of the concentration of militants near Palmyra? Did they warn the Syrian command beforehand?

The information which the Ministry of Defense of Russia reliably possessed was that ISIS militants were coming from Iraq to Syria having left coalition-taken Mosul. Corresponding concerns were repeatedly expressed to the media during briefings by representatives of the Russian General Staff and foreign ministry. 

As for the preparation of a large-scale offensive on Palmyra in those precise days, of course, the ministry of defense, despite having limited intelligence capabilities in the remote theater of combat operations, possessed information on an impending attack. Naturally, this was passed on to Syrian colleagues. The question was the exact date when the militants would be ready to attack Palmyra, the scope, and their chosen method of offensive operations. And here the Syrians’ tactical intelligence was supposed to work, but didn’t…

It must be understood that the capabilities of Russian intelligence in Syria are limited. Our advantage over the militants in aerospace reconnaissance is undeniable. But when it comes to work “on the ground”, due to objective reasons Russian specialists don’t have sufficient capabilities and, as a rule, tend to rely on information extracted by Syrian intelligence.

It’s worth noting that the terrorists have regularly attempted offensives on the Palmyra front. They competently take advantage of weather conditions (including sand storms) and the terrain.

Before the terrorists’ latest offensive on Palmyra, the Syrian military had partial information and they managed to organize the timely evacuation of the civilian population from the city. But they either did not have information on the large scale of the upcoming offensive or the command of government troops wasn’t able to correctly assess the situation.

However, the main circumstance that allowed the terrorists to take Palmyra was their almost unhindered exit from Iraqi Mosul. It cannot be definitely asserted that this was either the malice of the command of the US-led coalition or was the result of someone’s mistake. And, of course, the stealthiness in the preparation of the offensive should be mentioned. It is no secret that former officers of the Syrian and Iraqi armies are fighting on the side of ISIS.

Why did the Syrian army leave the city so hastily?

The most combat-efficient part of government troops was concentrated in the Aleppo area. On the other fronts, the Syrian army was carrying out defensive and blocking operations. This involved units mainly consisting of conscript soldiers and militias of the National Defense Force – it was they who defended the heights around the ancient city.

Their number was determined by the tasks they were assigned, i.e., defending against and blocking the surrounding militants. These types of tasks relax fighters to a certain extent as they get used to a regular rhythm of service and can afford layoffs and vacations. In the end, mildly speaking, these are not the most combat-effective units.

In addition, Palmyra is located at a considerable distance from the Russian Hmeimim airbase, which imposes certain restrictions on the use of the Russian air forces’ combat aircraft in the area. This above all concerns the length of aircraft’s presence in the air during so-called “free hunt” mode. 

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Nevertheless, Russian pilots managed to destroy more than 300 militants and several dozen pieces of the terrorists’ vehicles and equipment on the way to Palmyra. Yet another limitation is that the Russian air forces’ planes are working on the outskirts of the city and don’t strike residential areas and especially not the historic part of the city. The militants take advantage of this.

The terrorists possessed all the necessary information on the situation in the city which allowed them to choose the right moment to attack. Apparently, not having enough combat experience, Syrian troops at one point simply wavered and retreated, leaving behind all weapons and military equipment.

What was the balance of forces at Palmyra?

The overall balance of forces in the recent battles around Palmyra has been 4:1 in favor of the militants. Around 1000 servicemen of the Syrian army have opposed 4,000 militants sent in the direction of Palmyra. Besides, these troops were distributed at checkpoints and garrisons in and around the city.

This ratio reached exorbitant extremes on the main front of the attack, where the militants concentrated their manpower and vehicles. Some block-posts defended by 20-30 people were attacked by 700 militants. So the defenders stood practically no chance.

The terrorists managed to feign a simultaneous attack on all the main fronts to Palymra, which did not allow the Syrian command to promptly use available reserves. The panic that swept Syrian troops as a result of suicide bombers, including the use of “jihad-mobiles”, played a considerable role in defeat. Everyone encountered this tactic for the first time in Syria. For now, government troops have been incapable of developing effective ways of dealing with this threat.

The militants’ actions clearly resemble the style of the Wehrmacht in 1940-1942 using elements of Blitzkrieg. But instead of Guderian’s tanks, they use carts with machine guns, seize the tactical and rapid initiative with relatively small moving forces, and “feel out” the opponent’s defense and concentration of forces in its weakest zones. Then came the breach of the rear, cutting the opponent’s groups into pieces, and then loss of control and panic…

Tanks were sent as the main core of heavy assault weapons, but carts and light infantry went ahead first.

What are the prospects of the development of the situation after the defeat at Palmyra? What is to be done next?

It must be understood that the failure of the Syrian army at Palmyra is a defeat on the tactical level that does not threaten any kind of serious consequences for the fate of the war as a whole. If groups of government troops had normal tactical intelligence, organized management, and had timely deployed reserves to the fronts of the militants’ main attacks, then the outcome of the battle could have been different. 

Therefore, the Syrian command needs to learn this bitter lesson and draw the appropriate conclusions in terms of training troops and organizing combat operations.

Russian military advisers are now teaching Syrian officers. In the near future, the Syrian command will plan and carry out an operation to destroy liquidate the militants in the Palmyra area. The defeat of the Syrian army at Palmyra should be a vivid example for the whole anti-ISIS coalition of how the absence of coordination between allies plays only into the terrorists’ hands. As long as there is no real interaction, our common enemy will always succeed, even if only on the tactical level.

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The defeat of the Syrian army at Palmyra is a blow not only to the prestige of Russia or Bashar al-Assad. It must finally be recognized that Russia, the US, Assad, the coalition countries (and even Israel!) are enemies for ISIS on whom they will seek to inflict maximal damage. 

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