Thursday, March 24, 2016

Syrian troops re-enter the strategic city of Palmyra.

Syrian troops on the road to Palmyra. Reuters/SANA. 

Syrian media claim that troops loyal to Bashar al-Assad's regime have entered the strategic city of Palmyra, which was taken by ISIS last year. Reuters. Monitoring groups claim that the regime is just outside of the city and is making fast progress in the area. The regime launched an offensive to take back the city earlier this month and the advance is being backed by Russian air power. Civilians have attempted to evacuate from the city. Palmyra sits an a crucial crossroads between Deir Ez Zor in te east and Damascus in the west. It was also the site of several historical ruins that were destroyed by ISIS.

My Comment:
Very good news out of Syria, especially if they manged to take the city without doing further damage to the ruins there. The destruction of the ruins in Palmyra is one of ISIS's most heinous and disgusting crimes. The ruins that were lost were irreplaceable and their destruction diminished all of humanity. I am afraid though that there is nothing left to be salvaged. ISIS was very determined to destroy anything they viewed as blasphemous, and for whatever reason, they felt that these ruins were. 

I've said before that the iconoclasm of ISIS is one of the worst features of the organization. That isn't to say that they are the only group with that problem. Indeed, all of Sunni Islam thinks that veneration of the dead or depictions of people are blasphemous. It's the worst feature of an already problematic religion and it is threatening history itself. And it's the moral obligation that makes the very least sense for me. Why could it ever be wrong to depict someone? I guess I kind of understand the prohibition against ancestor veneration, if you truly believed it is disrespectful to God , but it's still stupid and wrong. 

Not that the destruction of ruins was the only thing that ISIS did in Palmyra. Indeed, the executions they did there among the ruins were probably even worse. I have seen videos of them using children, as young as 8 years old, to execute prisoners with the ruins of Palmyra as a backdrop. Dozens of prisoners were killed in these videos by children. If you really want to see such a thing, you can find it yourself, I won't post it here, but it just goes to show that ISIS has a lot to answer for in Palmyra. Using children as executioners is so vile I can't even think of a fictional society that would do it. The fact that we have real people, using real children, to murder is just unbelievable. 

As for the Syrian regime they have been making quick progress ever since the cease fire has been declared. Not having to fight the more moderate Syrian rebels has freed their forces up to target ISIS and, to a lesser extent, al-Nusra, who are not covered by the truce. Without the threat of rebel attacks, they can concentrate their forces against ISIS. Though the truce may not hold forever, it is freeing up large numbers of troops. The obvious caveat is that if the truce falls apart, then the offensive could stall, though my guess is that ISIS is the main target for right now. 

The Syrian regime can also concentrate the firepower of their Russian allies. The Russians have pulled out most of their air force but they have left quite a few jets and helicopters behind. What is left is being used in a smart way, in support of the Syrian regime troops. Having that kind of firepower available is most likely a huge morale boost and is helping the troops on the ground advance. Air power is a force multiplier that increases the effectiveness of ground troops. And if this war has shown us anything it is that Russian air power is effective and destructive. 

This strategy is already paying dividends. The regime has taken quite a bit of territory back from ISIS in the Aleppo area, and this new battle to take back Palmyra could push ISIS back even further. Palmyra is a hugely strategically important city and if they capture it they can use it as a springboard for further attacks east. Not only can they use the city as a base to relive the besieged city of Deir Ez Zor, they are also creating a massive salient to attack ISIS forces that are stationed in Qaryatayn. It could even be used as a base for attacks on the Syrian ISIS capital of Raqqa itself. In short, Palmyra could be a dagger pointed at the throat of ISIS, and taking it would be a huge victory.

If the battle for Palmyra ends in a regime victory, consider it a major turning point in the war against ISIS. As recently as a few months ago, ISIS was still taking territory from the Syrian regime. Russian airstrikes, along with this new cease fire, has completely reversed ISIS's momentum in Syria. The regime is starting to take their country back and ISIS is in serious trouble.

And the situation is even more dire for ISIS because the situation in Iraq is similar to the one in Syria. Troops are massing for attacks on the de-facto capital of Mosul, and it seems likely that ISIS could lose even more territory then they have already. Could this be the beginning of the end of the ISIS threat?

Hardly. ISIS has survived reversals in fortune before. For example, after losing Tikrit in Iraq, they were able to take Ramadi out from under the noses of the Iraqi security forces. Such a reversal isn't quite as likely today as it was back then, but it's certainly possible. And ISIS still holds massive swaths of territory in both Iraq and Syria, which will take years to clean up. Remember, in the summer, wars in Iraq and Syria tend to die down, so don't expect much in the way of offensives during the summer months. ISIS is also gaining territory in Libya and the situation there is much like the situation in Iraq and Syria when ISIS first started to come onto the scene. 

More importantly, these advances against ISIS won't do a damn thing against the threat of terrorism in Europe. The sleeper cells are already there and wreaking havoc, as the recent attacks in Brussels has shown. And more and more ISIS fighters will infiltrate into Europe, many of them battle hardened, as the migrant crisis continues unabated. Even worse, ISIS is inspiring an entire generation of Muslims to take up the call to Jihad. Many will resit that call but the ones that do not will cause massive problems. Even if ISIS is pushed out of Syria and Iraq completely, the genie is out of the bottle. It's unlikely we will ever get it back in... 

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