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Syria: Re-taking Palmyra is a good thing...isn't it?

Syria: Re-taking Palmyra is a good thing...isn't it?
Published 29 Mar 2016   Follow @RodgerShanahan

News that a Syrian military coalition has re-taken the ancient city of Tadmur (Palmyra) is further evidence of the pressure ISIS is under, as well as the ability of the Syrian military to better its opponents when it operates as a combined-arms force. In this case, the Syrian military was once again supported by Iranian advisers and Hizbullah, and Russian air power that delivered nearly 150 airstrikes in the space of three days leading up to Palmyra's fall and 40 in a 24 hour period leading to its recapture. This is a significant rate of effort and points to the intensity of the battle, as does the death of a Russian forward air controller whose position was compromised during the fighting.

The significance of Palmyra's recapture is more political than strategic at this stage. The loss of such an historic centre was a major embarrassment for the Assad regime, and its recapture (along with the breaking of the siege of Kweiris airbase late last year) adds to the narrative of a Syrian regime which feels it is still strong and capable of reasserting sovereignty throughout the country. It also dislocates the ISIS logistical effort along the main roads in the country's barren east. The reality, however, is that the Assad regime can't reassert sovereignty throughout the country, as it relies on its allies to provide much of its enabling support.

As the political negotiations continue to limp along and a reduction of violence has been achieved in many areas in Syria, any signs of Syrian government military success on other fronts against internationally-acknowledged terrorist groups can only strengthen its hand. This is particularly the case as the apparent unity of effort of the Syrian government coalition contrasts (as always) with the disunity of the various militias in the north and south of the country

On the face of it, the capture of the city could allow the regime to consolidate and strike out towards Deir az-Zour, where it has some troops holding on against ISIS forces, and/or the Iraqi border, where it could reassert control over border crossings and further restrict ISIS's freedom of ground movement. Or it could decide to strike northwards straight into the ISIS heartland of Raqqa. There are media reports suggesting the Syrian General Command has indicated that these are live options. To do this, however, the Assad regime has to be able to generate sufficient combat power to re-take these centres and then to defend and administer any ground it re-takes. More importantly, it has to convince its allies that continued offensive manoeuvre against heavily defended objectives are worth their blood and treasure. There is no doubt that the further Hizbullah gets away from the Lebanese border, the less comfortable it is spilling its blood. Moscow too would have a weather eye on its interests in determining how much air support it will want to commit to the regime, and how achievable the regime's military aims are.

But the one unadulterated good regarding the recapture of the ancient site is that the city will be saved from the grip of an intolerant and medieval terrorist group. The UN Secretary-General welcomed its recapture. But the reaction to date of Western leaders has been muted, if not mute. At time of writing, there has been no official comment from Washington, London or Canberra. The defeat of ISIS and recapture of a UNESCO world heritage site is to be welcomed, but that it has been done by the forces of President Assad, supported by Hizbullah, makes it difficult to craft a sensible reaction to the news. Certainly this US State Department spokesperson tied himself in knots (see the accompanying Youtube clip) trying to avoid saying whether the Syrian Government's re-taking of Palmyra was a good thing or not.

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