By Juan Cole | (Informed Comment) | – –
That massive Russian air strikes and a determined infantry and armor assault by the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) on the ancient city of Palmyra could dislodge from it a few hundred or at most a couple thousand Daesh (ISIS, ISIL) fighters is not all that surprising. The question is what it tells us about Russian/ Syrian strategy and about the situation on the ground in Syria.
First, the SAA lost Palmyra because it was overstretched. It was trying to defend Damascus, Homs, Hama, Latakia and West Aleppo, along an inherently indefensible Y where some 70% of Syrians live, and of which the regime of Bashar al-Assad all along retained control– though it almost lost Homs in 2013 and almost lost Aleppo in summer-fall 2015. Palmyra, out in the eastern desert, was not strategically important enough to Damascus to invest the resources needed to retain it. The commander of the Qods Brigade (Jerusalem Brigade), the special operations unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps, Qasem Soleimani, is said to have urged al-Assad to focus on the compact “Y” and to let Palmyra go. The regime lost some lucrative gas fields near the city, and Daesh tried to use Palmyra as a base from which to cut the trunk road to Hama, but on the whole the decision seems to have had few downsides militarily.
Moreover, as the opposition pointed out, the fall of Palmyra was a propaganda windfall for Bashar al-Assad. All but 15,000 of Palmyra’s 70,000 people promptly fled Daesh rule, suggesting that the Baath regime was in fact preferable to that of the phony caliphate. And Daesh predictably damaged the spectacular archeological treasures of the ancient Roman outpost, drawing Western attention and implicitly again suggesting that even al-Assad rule was better than that of Daesh. (The opposition angrily asked why so much world attention focused on some old columns being destroyed but not on the deaths of hundreds of thousands in the civil war).
That the Syrian army can now recover Palmyra fairly easily suggests that it is no longer so overstretched. Russian air power helps, but the Syrian air force has all along been flying, often to deadly and indiscriminate effect.
In part, this new position of strength for Damascus comes from the ceasefire worked out by Sec. of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov between the regime and the remnants of the Free Syrian Army (what the US calls the “moderate” or “vetted” guerrilla groups, which I take it are mostly Muslim Brotherhood rather than Salafi Jihadi).
Strategically, the ceasefire relieves Russian air pressure on the FSA groups, so that they are not in danger of completely collapsing– retaining, e.g. East Aleppo and villages north of Hama, Idlib province, etc. This Russian and Syrian government willingness to have a cessation of hostilities with these groups suggests that they are the ones who will be allowed to negotiate a post-war Syria from the opposition side– though the Russian intervention has left them in a weak position while the regime has been much strengthened.
For the Syrian regime, the ceasefire relieves the army from the necessity of defending long road routes and thousands of villages.
Only three groups appear not to have joined in the ‘cessation of hostilities’– one is al-Qaeda (the Nusra Front) in the northwest (a theater the US press and politicians routinely ignore because the US is tactically allied with al-Qaeda via FSA units that fight alongside it). The second is the al-Qaeda ally the Freemen of Syria (Ahrar al-Sham), which represents itself as more moderate than the other Salafi Jihadis but to my mind this is like saying that the Italian fascists were more moderate than the German ones. Probably true, but so what?
Then there is Daesh. It is horrible, and is now regularly striking European cities, but in the Syrian civil war its dusty desert territories in the east, half-abandoned by their former populations, just were not that important regionally, even if Daesh was on the US front burner as a problem.
So I would have expected Russia and the Syrian regime to take advantage of the ceasefire to finish off al-Qaeda and separate it from its tactical allies who are observing it.
Instead, they struck off into the eastern desert to recover Palmyra, which has much less significance than the al-Qaeda-held regions of Idlib, or around Damascus, or in the Golan. It is a little baffling.
If the regime and Russia, as they have announced they will, press on to defeat Daesh in its strongholds of Deir al-Zor and al-Raqqa, then the old advantage for the regime of being able to point to the danger of Daesh if it falls or is weakened (thus dividing the West, many parts of which, like the Czech Republic, are far more afraid of Daesh than of the survival of al-Assad) will be gone.
Is this because the regime and Russia no longer see any realistic prospect of the regime falling? Is it because the US and NATO have given some sort of behind the scenes assurances that they will pressure the FSA remnants to negotiate, and will cut them off if they don’t? Is it because there is hope that the Free Syria Army remnants can convince Nusra to abandon its allegiance to 9/11 mastermind Ayman al-Zawahiri and so become just another Salafi unit of the opposition?
Do they want credit from Europe for polishing off Daesh now that Paris and Brussels were attacked, arguing now that the regime is necessary to prevent a *resurgence* of that kind of thing once al-Raqqa falls and the caliphate is reduced to a ragtag band of fugitive terrorists?
So here is one possible explanation for this strategy. The Syrian regime press quotes an unnamed military expert as saying that the recovery of Palmyra may prevent the partition of Syria.
That is, Kerry and even the Russian deputy foreign minister have talked about the possibility of a decentralized, federal post-war Syria, which the regime in Damascus interprets as “partition.” Syria, like its past colonial power France, has a tradition of strong rule from the center.
Obviously Daesh would not have been left in federalized al-Raqqa and Deir al-Zor provinces. But al-Raqqa might have fallen to the Syrian Kurds, who have already announced their new ethnic federal province of Rojava, over strong objections from Damascus.
So maybe the regime is trying to prevent a federal solution by recovering the two big (if largely empty) provinces of eastern Syria, making an argument that Damascus has 90% of the country and so federal devolution makes no sense.
So they may be trying to head off the Kurds at al-Raqqa, and trying to forestall a Kerry decentralization initiative. I.e., the Palmyra campaign is about shaping the post-war settlement. If that is true, we’re now in the end stages of the war, and al-Assad is acting toward Daesh territory as Stalin did toward the Nazis in 1945– trying to get as far into Germany as possible before the fall of Berlin.