Fall of Palmyra: Syrian regime races to take ISIL’s ‘Berlin’ and forestall ‘Partition’

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.


Related video

CCTV: “Syrian government forces recapture Palmyra from ISIL”

11 Responses

  1. A very interesting analysis, thank you very much Professor Cole.

    I would like to hear some alternative views from other credentialed analysts, yet you present a very convincing case.

    If things do pan out in Assad’s favor as you suggest, i.e that the tradition of very strong central government continues in a newly-negotiated regime in which the populations supporting Assad (Shia Muslims, Alawites and other religious minorities, secular Sunnis) remain in the ascendant (whether or not Assad himself remains in Syria) it will mean that the Assad family’s military legacy will be that the only victory they could win, was against their own population who were seeking a more democratic and responsive government.

  2. I think, it is all about the link between Syria and Iran. Today Russian planes could only reach Syria because ISIL is not international recognized , so they could not block their airspace. If peace breaks out, maybe ISIL could change into same kind of internationally recognised sunni-state. Don’t forget that one of the reasons for the war was, that Israel wanted to block the link between Hisbollah and Teheran. No wonder, Hisbollah did take part in the fighting for Palmyra.

    • Maybe this is evidence that Russia is committed to reinforcing Iran’s sphere of influence in the region instead of trying to rule one of its own. I’m looking for clues as to how serious an alliance the Shanghai Cooperation Organization is, especially in light of Iran’s supposed membership.

  3. I think, it is about long time strategy. The Russians were not allowed to fly to Damaskus using Nato airspace. They had to fly over Iran and Irak. If there would have been an international recognized Sunni-state in the east of Syria then the western-sunni Alliance could have blocked the way.
    The SAA and its allies have to destroy ISIS or at least, cut it in two peaces.
    Do not forget, this war was never about democracy or barrel bombs, but one reason to start it, was to break the supply lines between Hisbollah and Iran.

  4. When Russia announced that it was going to step into Syria to support Assad I wrote here that this would probably swing things Assad’s way and he was very likely to retain power. It now looks like he has all the cards. So, what we will have is a return to a status quo ante, only with the Assad government presiding over a wrecked country. Assad will have to concentrate on just rebuilding his country over the next decade or so. The only hope for a more representative government is if his Russian allies push for it as recompense for their past and future support. Not likely. Not all problems in the international sphere are fixable and I strongly suspect this is one of those.

  5. I think we need to put the concern for the safety and security of the Syrian people first and foremost, and I am glad for the people of ancient Tadmor that they are no longer under the heel of Daesh (ISIS, ISIL). As a classicist and one who was in Palmyra many years ago (1994), I am deeply relieved that the ancient ruins did not suffer more damage than it did, and it appears some of those ruins will be able to be restored. It is a ray of slim light in an otherwise horribly tragic situation for a people I recall as warm and welcoming, and a country with a cultural patrimony on the scale of (in ancient terms) of Italy, Greece, or Turkey.

  6. More like Najibullah and freedom fighters then Stalin and Nazis. Daesh has enemies other then the US and Esteemed coalition don’t you know.I still remember the words of a young Syrian solider” we will finish you” before being machine gunned and I hope Syrian, Iraqi army and their allies will bring truth to those words, right of exclusiveness of Daesh as Coalition pet Chucky doll notwithstanding.

  7. They don’t really need any new motives. They are doing what have always said they would do. Russia has very good reasons of it’s own for bringing Daesh down and Assad would be failing in his duty if he didn’t seek to regain all Syrian territory. He told French lawmakers visiting Damascus on Sunday that Syria is too small for federalization.

    link to sputniknews.com

  8. Federalization is not a solution – never was. As the war is not defined by ethnicity, creating a Sunni, a Kurdish, and an Alawite state, will not solve anything as most Sunnis don’t want to live the head-chopping way of life. Case in point being that most people fled Palmyra before the Wahhabi nutcases arrived.

  9. Oh boy. Russia went to Syria, at Assad’s invitation, that’s why it’s among the only legal forces there. It went there to save Assad’s government. ISIS is a problem for Russia as well. The howls of rage when Russia supported Assad by targeting everyone fighting him were very funny.

    Russia has Assad’s back, no matter how much you dislike that idea.

    The war in Syria, started by forces that wanted Assad gone, is to create a pipeline from Qatar to Turkey, so they can sell gas to Europe. That’s why.

    You have enough information to figure out the rest.

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