“Disaster” in Palmyra or Priorities in Aleppo?

By Ollie Richardson

4 VBIEDs (vehicle-borne improvised explosive devices) and 5km in 5 hours – how ISIS seized Palmyra once again from the Syrian Army…

In essence the offensive can be simplified as such, but in reality what happened on December 11th, 2016, in the province of Homs is the result of exceptional planning and resources. ISIS terrorists didn’t simply appear from thin air and emulate Operation Barbarossa with a just a handful of tanks,artillery pieces, and old dusty armaments. They came equipped with high-caliber sniper rifles, anti-tank missiles, and machine guns mounted on Toyotas. Despite being beaten back the day prior courtesy of 60 Russian airstrikes (diverted from Aleppo), they came back and approached Palmyra from the north and south, and knew that the weakness in the Syrian Army’s defenses was the highest point of the city. After the VBIEDs did their work, the call was sent from Syrian high command to withdraw and regroup on the perimeter. ISIS is now pushing for the strategic T4 airbase east of Homs.

According to social media, the above description can be described as “Russia betrayed Palmyra”, “the Syrian Army are cowards”, or “Assad is in bed with ISIS”. While none of these descriptions are more ridiculous than the others, they all base their assertions on ISIS propaganda and simulacra from western media and think tanks. In fact, ISIS was handed Palmyra on a plate by the likes of the BBC and CNN on December 10th – the citation of course ISIS’ Amaq news agency, which is notorious for exaggerations, disinformation, and just plain lying.

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But ISIS didn’t need the western media’s help – the planning and execution of this offensive was something not seen since the group’s inception in the late noughties. Whilst it cannot be directly proven that the Obama administration lent a hand to al-Baghdadi’s men in Palmyra, the timing with the liberation of Aleppo is absolutely staggering, and thus questions will be certainly asked. Russia will not aggressively blame the US though, as Aleppo is the number one priority, and once fully liberated it gives Assad and allies not only an unbeatable hand, but also a springboard to attack Idlib from. In addition, the Syrian Army, Hezbollah Ridwan, Russian air and ground contingent, and Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps units can be re-deployed to other fronts in Homs and Deir Ezzor. So in other words, the fall of Palmyra, whilst a temporal frustrating setback, in the grand scheme of things it is minor.

The main things have been accomplished in the fight against terrorism in Syria: Turkey’s tie to ISIS and the “moderate” rebels was severed (consequence of Su-24 shootdown); Hezbollah’s tie to Damascus was strengthened; Russia saved and further protected its naval base in Tartus; Iran’s tie to Syria became stronger; the formation of a Kurdish state in the north was prevented (consequence of Turkey-Russia agreement over Aleppo, also known as “Operation Euphrates shield”); NATO presence in Syria was prevented. Of course there is the issue of Mosul and al-Qaim (what will post-liberated Mosul look like concerning US-Iraqi influence? And how will the Iraqi Army and PMU close off the Iraqi border to Deir Ezzor?), but in all likelihood the resolution to these issues will start to take shape when Donald Trump takes office in February/March 2017.

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While it has tarnished the reputation of Russia in the minds of black/white thinkers, the fall of Palmyra has only a symbolic resonance. And since Aleppo is fully liberated, ISIS’ journey into the trashcan of history will be confirmed once and for all courtesy of Sukhoi, Mikoyan, and Kuznetsov. Will the western media start to once again accuse Russia of “not fighting ISIS”? Unlikely, since there are no “moderate” Trojan horses in Palmyra, but it would be foolish to assume that the bar set by the western media has reached it’s definitive lowest point.

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