Sunday, December 11, 2016

ISIS has retaken Palmyra despite heavy Russian airstrikes.

Syrian soldiers driving by the ruins in Palmyra. Reuters. 

ISIS has retaken the ancient city of Palmyra from the Syrian regime despite withering airstrikes from Russian forces. Reuters. The city was recaptured from ISIS but the Syrian regime lost it again, in a dynamic back and forth battle. ISIS was fully liberated from ISIS last March, but the regime weakened the forces defending the city in order to throw them into the battle in Aleppo. The Islamic State has taken advantage of this weakness and have been fighting a back and forth battle for the city. ISIS also took several gas fields and were threatening the T4 airfield, one of Syria's biggest, before their offensive was broken by airstrikes. Russia launched 64 strikes in the area and claim to have killed 300 ISIS fighters. More than 4,000 ISIS fighters are fighting in the area. 

My Comment:
Very bad news out of Syria. ISIS hasn't had a major victory in a long time and it is disappointing to say the least that their latest victory comes in Palmyra. Palmyra was the scene of some of ISIS's most horrifying atrocities. Not only did they destroy much of the ruins in the ancient city, they also executed hundreds of people there. When Palmyra was liberated it was a major blow to ISIS and their credibility. 

To lose the city again is a major propaganda victory for ISIS. Though Palmyra is important strategically, it is also now imbued with propaganda value as well. The world celebrated, even western countries, when the city was liberated. Russia even had a concert there in the ruined amphitheater that ISIS used for executions. ISIS recapturing the city is a message to the world. They are still a threat and the gains made against them are reversible. 

Still, despite the victory, it's not all good news for ISIS. For one the battle is still very much in doubt with the regime taking back the city briefly and then losing it again. ISIS's control of the city is not strong and it is very possible that they will lose the city again. And if the casualty figures that Russia is releasing are anywhere close to being accurate, then they are taking massive casualties in the battle there. 

Even taking the city doesn't do much for ISIS. Sure, Palmyra can be used as a base for further attacks in the region, but it doesn't solve the most pressing problem for ISIS. Since Turkey entered the war ISIS has been cut off from the rest of the world. With the border area sealed off ISIS no longer has a way to get new recruits short of drafting people living under their control. Turkey was also a vital supply route for ISIS and with that area closed they are losing massive amounts of money. 

I also think that Palmyra is one of the few places left where ISIS could make gains. They are under heavy pressure and on the defensive in Iraq so there isn't much room to expand there. In Syria, Turkey and the Kurds have put them under extreme pressure in the north. That leaves Palmyra as one of the only places where they could attack. It is, of course, impressive that they are able to advance at all considering the pressure they are under but let's remember that this is probably the only place they could do so.

Of course it is a bad sign for Syria that they were weak enough in the region that ISIS was able to take back the city. The battle for Aleppo has bled them dry. Remember, just a little while ago, the Syrian regime was advancing in the region near Palmyra. There was serious talk of them advancing to either Raqqa, ISIS's capitol, or the besieged city of Dier ez Zor. Not anymore.

The Syrian regime has thrown pretty much everything they have into the battle of Aleppo. And they have gotten quite a bit of success for doing so. But pulling troops from other areas have left them vulnerable. I doubt ISIS would have been able to take the city if the Syrians had left more troops in the city. 

Still, from Syria's point of view, capturing Aleppo is worth losing the city of Palmyra. If they win in Aleppo, they knock the majority of Syrian rebels out of the war. And the ones that would be left would be demoralized and leaderless. With those rebels defeated, the regime can then throw it's focus back into fighting ISIS and other terrorist groups. 

Once again, the battle of Palmyra has shown the limitations of air power. Russia has sent massive airstrikes against ISIS but it hasn't won the battle for the Syrian regime. The problem is that you still need troops on the ground to win a war and the ones stationed in Palmyra did not live up to the task. All the airstrikes in the world can't save you if the guys on the ground break. 

Which makes me wonder why the troops in Palmyra did retreat. Despite the ferocity of the attack, they should have been able to hold, especially with air support. Perhaps they called for reinforcements and none came? Maybe morale is worse among the Syrian troops then I thought? Or maybe they just got caught by surprise? Whatever the cause, it's not a good showing by the Syrian troops... 

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