Palmyra Is Critical in the Coming Battle with Islamic State for Raqqa
By William Tucker
Contributor, In Homeland Security
A few days ago, the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed Kurdish military faction, entered the Romaniah neighborhood outside Raqqa. The Islamic State (IS) has called Raqqa its capital since seizing the city in 2014. Retaking Raqqa is a priority for the U.S.-led coalition and the forces still loyal to Syrian President Bashir al-Assad, although these various entities will not necessarily work in concert.
Taking Raqqa will be a significant but difficult feat for the Syrian Democratic Forces. They have their work cut out for them, even with air support. However, retaking Raqqa does not imply that the Islamic State will fold in defeat.
As an example, there is the strategic city of Palmyra, which IS held until late March of 2016. IS did retake Palmyra, albeit briefly.
That episode proved that IS is still an effective fighting force in the face of a difficult onslaught. Indeed, Palmyra demonstrated that IS thinks strategically because it chose a tactical retreat over fighting to the last man.
Holding Palmyra Limits the Ability of IS to Target Syrian Government Forces
Palmyra is important in the battle for Raqqa. Regime forces pushed north toward Aleppo, but if they were to take Raqqa, they would need Palmyra too. It’s important to reiterate this point because holding Palmyra limits the ability of IS to target the logistics supporting Syrian government forces. Furthermore, with the Kurdish forces making a run at Raqqa, IS becomes even further isolated.
The recent loss of Mosul in neighboring Iraq significantly shrunk the territory of the Islamic State, which once controlled a significant area. Now that the various forces opposed to IS have secured or are securing strategic territory in the Syrian countryside, it is only a matter of time before IS loses its capital.
Syrian government forces have slowly made their way from Palmyra toward the city of Dayr az Zawr, east of Raqqa. If they can take Dayr az Zawr, they will cut off Raqqa from what’s left of IS fighters in Iraq.
Ultimately, cutting off Raqqa will prevent IS from completely deserting the city before the fighting intensifies. Right now, it appears the route from Raqqa to Dayr az-Zawr is still open to IS, but that could close in the coming days.
Islamic State’s Loss of Territory Does Not Cancel Worldwide Terrorist Threats
Although the shrinking of IS territory sounds impressive, that does not mean the group is finished as a terrorist threat to Syrians or the world in general. In the midst of fighting in Syria, IS clearly demonstrated that it still inspires people to carry out simple terrorist attacks against soft targets. Furthermore, the timing of the most recent IS-inspired attacks in the U.K. might have had an impact on the parliamentary elections earlier this month.
As the spectrum of forces opposed to IS continues to battle IS in Syria, we can expect to see an increase in terrorist attacks against Western targets. If the recent attacks in Iran and Iraq are any indicator, terror orchestrated by IS will be a mainstay of the group for the near future.
Another element to consider is the possibility that IS might recover some of its lost territory in time. Even with IS out of the larger picture in the Syrian battle space, there are still hundreds of rebel groups opposed to the Assad regime.
Removing the larger IS threat will certainly free the Syrian military to deal with these smaller groups. But a military victory will do little to correct the underlying conditions that sparked the civil war in the first place. As long as fighting continues in Syria, there is always the possibility that IS will be able to exploit one power vacuum or another.
And if it’s not IS, terrorist attacks could come from another group such as al-Qaeda, which has also demonstrated its ability to fight capably in Syria. Al-Qaeda has the expertise to offer former IS fighters a new flag to fight for. While the days of the IS caliphate might be numbered, the Islamic State or its future iterations are not yet defeated.