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Sunday, December 25, 2016

The second fall of Palmyra: what happened and how will the Syrian-Russian-Iranian alliance respond?

December 21, 2016
On December 8, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terrorist group launched a major offensive in a bid to recapture the ancient city of Palmyra, which was otherwise lost to the Syrian Army earlier in March this year. ISIL managed to not only muster between 4000-5000 fighters, but managed to travel across the eastern Homs desert unnoticed until they reached the gates of the ancient city. Their swift advance was made from three flanks, with ISIL terrorists attacking from the north, the south and the east. ISIL initially captured the Jabal Hayyan area which overlooks the city and the Al-Mahr Oil Fields to the north. Despite a Syrian-Russian counterattack which initially repelled the ISIL assault and killed at least 300 militants according to the Russian Ministry of Defense, ISIL still managed to renew their assault as the Syrian government forces were forced to withdraw amid a massive evacuation of civilians from the city. [1] [2]
By December 11, ISIL had fully recaptured the city after the Syrian Army withdrew, facing overwhelming ISIL numbers and an imminent threat of encirclement.[3]
This event left many observers of the Syrian conflict with the question: what happened? How could the SAA lose the city so quickly, especially with ISIL being weakened so badly in recent times?
It has since the offensive was launched been revealed that a large number of ISIL terrorists had withdrawn from the towns of Rawa and Al-Qaem in Iraq, in order to engage the Syrian and Russian forces in the eastern Homs area. [4]
Southfront.org offered an analysis the next day, explaining the events that led to the second fall of Palmyra. The article explains that the rapid breakthrough and advancement of the ISIL terrorists was due to some fundamental mistakes made by commanders of the Syrian Army and the allied National Defense Forces (NDF) who let their guards down. In sum, they had not paid attention to sufficient fortification activities, and tactical reconnaissance and assessment of the attacking enemy forces. This resulted in insufficient information to the Army High Command causing them to fail to take preventive actions to counter the imminent ISIL threat. Southfront however also considers mistakes made by the Russian assist and advice mission, with regards to the surprise of the redeployment of ISIL units from Iraq to Syria. [5]
This reason is one of the most important ones to consider when analysing the fall of Palmyra. Already in October this year, reports emerged that the US along with its Gulf allies had devised a plan to “relocate” ISIL militants from Mosul to Syria. The Russian news outlet RIA Novosti had revealed that the plan was to allow up to 9000 ISIL terrorists safe passage out of Mosul with the condition that they fight Syrian and Russian troops in Palmyra and Deir Ezzor. [6] This plan is essentially aimed at removing all Syrian government presence from eastern Syria, thus creating the infamous “Sunni entity” in eastern Syria and Western Iraq, with its role intended to be a permanent thorn in the side of Syria and its allies.
With this information at the disposal of the Syrian and Russian governments, it seems rather strange that the preparations for this upcoming influx of ISIL terrorists from Iraq to Syria was rather absent amid the rapid ISIL advance. Meanwhile, unconfirmed reports from twitter mainly, speculated about the idea that the US air force could have played a part in the very unnoticed ISIL advance to Palmyra. Any observer of this war would wonder how the massive ISIL convoys managed to travel from the oil rich town of Al-Sukhanah in the far eastern reaches of the Homs province to Palmyra totally under the radar with Russian satellites being unable to detect them. The Twitter user “Maytham” reported that the US air force had disrupted the “VHF radios and radars via satellites over the roads between Al-Sukhanah and Palmyra” in order to provide a 6 hour cover for ISIL’s passage. Whether or not this is true, I’ll leave up for debate, we should however not forget that the US has assisted ISIL in the past, most notably when it “accidentally” bombed the Syrian Army in Deir Ezzor on September 20, killing more than 80 Syrian soldiers in the process.
Another factor explaining the loss of Palmyra that must be underscored is the fact that the Syrian Army simply does not have enough troops to attack and hold its positions on the multitude of fronts it is engaged in. The Army had sent some of its best troops to Aleppo for the major offensive that was launched in November and that resulted in the inevitable defeat of terrorist groups in this imperative city. This however left the Army very vulnerable on other fronts, especially the eastern fronts such as Palmyra.
While the liberation of Aleppo was welcomed by many, including me, I do think that it could have gone a lot quicker than it did. Ever since the Army managed to complete the siege back in July this year, the Army has had a chance to finally finish off the terrorist groups entrenched inside the eastern districts of the city. The Syrian and Russian governments have however been stalled on multiple occasions due to interference by the Western powers and their regional vassals. On too many occasions have the Syrian government and its allies agreed to pointless ceasefires, putting their faith in diplomacy and trusting the main backers of the terrorist groups fighting the Syrian Army. Too many times have they been disappointed and had to paid the price with the lives of brave soldiers.
These constant ceasefires have only been used by the US and its allies as a way to stall the Army and delay the inevitable. This gave other jihadists, most notably ISIL a window of opportunity to attack weaker fronts and take advantage of the massive amount of troops tied down at the Aleppo front. The liberation of Aleppo gives a bittersweet taste as Palmyra fell simultaneously, allowing the US to strike back in revenge for its proxies losing perhaps the most important battle in this war.
The Syrian government and its allies must stop putting their faith in “diplomacy” and allow the West to direct the course of actions, or else they will continue to remain in this kind of stalemate where they achieve an important gain, only to lose another strategic or symbolic point elsewhere. While the battle for Aleppo is over, the battle for Idlib is about to become the next focus point in this bloody war, a battle that will take the SAA far longer time and demand far more resources in order to achieve victory.
  1. http://tass.com/world/918505?__hstc=143095274.6382dc5dd8e3b5f6135ac5ee5371dcdf.1473976512470.1481753379374.1481973110672.185&__hssc=143095274.10.1481973110672&__hsfp=56543330
  2. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/palmyra-serious-threat-isis-moves-closer-city/ 
  3. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/isis-fully-retakes-palmyra-stunning-blitz-offensive-map-update/ 
  4. https://www.almasdarnews.com/article/isis-relocated-fighters-iraq-capture-palmyra/ 
  5. https://southfront.org/syrian-war-report-december-12-2016-mistakes-that-led-to-fall-of-palmyra/ 
  6. http://theduran.com/the-us-plan-for-isis-out-of-iraq-into-syria-to-fight-assad/ 

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