On March 27, 2016, a military coalition of partners fighting in support of the Assad regime finally retook the central Syrian city of Palmyra after a month-long campaign. Though the victory comes at an important time for the Assad regime, it is not as important as it is being portrayed.
The capture of the city pushed the Islamic State further to the east and threatened the group’s eastward reach into Iraq, but it is not the death knell for IS that many expected it to be. IS took limited casualties in the fight, but ultimately decided to withdraw. This victory is not due to overwhelming force; it was a strategic withdrawal on the part of IS.
Palmyra sits near the northern reaches of the Syrian desert. At one time, it was an important player in East-West trade across the Levant. Palmyra was once the seat of an often-forgotten and short-lived empire that stretched from Ankara, Turkey all the way to central Egypt.
Because the city is so isolated, it remained important for both ancient and modern travelers because it was one of the few stops between the eastern Mediterranean coast and Baghdad. Without the amenities Palmyra provided, travelers would have had to divert far to the north or south, prolonging their travel in the region.
This location plays a militarily important role as well. Many of the same logistics challenges faced by small caravans of traders have an equal impact on military movements. IS took the opportunity to expand southward from its capital of Raqqah, along one of the few roadways that run to the Syrian capital of Damascus.
Since IS held Palmyra in conjunction with the northern city of Aleppo, that also isolated the regime to the Syrian coast and to the capital. Russian airpower played an important role in reversing that trend. Numerous rebel groups fighting in the west near Aleppo and Idlib found themselves increasingly targeted by the Russians. Though Russia was often criticized for not hitting IS anywhere near as much as the other rebel groups, the airstrikes allowed the Assad regime and its allies to break this containment.
Palmyra: Strategically Placed
Taking a city is one thing, but holding it and then exploiting the position is quite another. That’s where things currently stand with Palmyra. The ancient city is certainly strategically placed if one were to push east and north into IS strongholds.
For that to happen, the pro-Assad coalition must establish a secure logistics chain from Damascus and Homs to ensure IS can’t wheel around to the west and cut off the regime’s forward-operating forces.
Clearing Palmyra of mines is another issue that can take time to accomplish before the newly held position can be exploited. With the help of Russian forces, this task could be expedited, but it is still dangerous.
Another factor to consider is the status of Aleppo far to the north. The city is currently under siege by regime and Kurdish forces fighting the IS occupation. Though Aleppo is quite some distance away from Palmyra, taking the city from IS and holding it would allow regime forces and their allies to place increasing pressure on the IS core around Raqqah.
Aleppo is a difficult problem to solve, as proven by the lengthy campaign to eject IS. If the regime can manage to take the city, then pushing towards Raqqah becomes less complicated.
There is still the matter of Dayr az Zawr, which has seen a constant battle between trapped regime forces and IS. However, moving towards Raqqah from the west and Dayr az Zawr from Palmyra to the south can go a long way toward denying IS movement within Syria’s borders.
Taking a strategic city away from IS is important, but we shouldn’t get carried away and call the demise of IS imminent. It has taken many months to get to this point and it doesn’t include the IS presence in neighboring Iraq.
This is one battle, albeit an important battle, in the struggle against IS. There is still a very long way to go.