Today, according to Syrian state television, Syrian troops enter Palmyra, in a major move to take back the city from ISIS control. The Syrian army has blocked two roads leading in and out of the ancient city and have already engaged ISIS troops in battle. A victory here would be a major morale booster for the Assad government and its supporters, including Russia. In fact, Russian airstrikes on Wednesday preceded the Syrian Army movement today.
Since May, 2015, ISIS troops have held the city of Palmyra, a historic city just Northeast of Damascus. The ISIS victory there was a major psychological blow to the government of Assad and raised fears that some of the most well-preserved archeological remnants of the Roman Empire would be destroyed. ISIS has destroyed other antiquities, specifically in Iraq, because it holds that these structures are remnants of idolatry.
In fact, those fears were realized, as ISIS troops destroyed two ancient temples and beheaded the Palmyra Antiquities Director, Khaled al-Asaad. A video featuring horrific executions of supposed government sympathizers in the Roman amphitheater was released soon afterward.
Today, however, could mark the beginning of the re-taking of Palmyra and a major morale boost to the Assad regime, currently stalled in peace talks with rebel force representatives in Geneva. Those talks have managed to achieve a cease-fire agreement between the Assad regime and rebels, but little more. Still, it has allowed humanitarian efforts, such as those of the Red Cross, to get badly needed relief to those areas under siege.
The city’s recapture would also provide a victory of sorts for Russia, who has been a staunch supporter of the Assad regime against the rebels.
While Russia continues its airstrikes on Palmyra, it also announced last week that it was pulling most of its forces out of Syria. For the last six months, Russia has performed airstrikes against rebel strongholds in an attempt to shore up the Assad regime. The cease-fire agreement has put a hold on those air strikes since February 27.
Members of regime opposition groups in Palmyra say that the Russian airstrikes, which on Wednesday totaled at least 40 airstrikes and one ballistic missile launch, are indiscriminate and have no regard to civilian casualties. The Palmyra Local Coordination Committee, an anti-regime group, has been particularly critical of all Russian military activity in the area.
“Russian planes, missiles and artillery have not stopped bombing the city indiscriminately as part of a scorched earth policy, without differentiating between humans and rocks,” one committee member stated.
In today’s fighting, Syrian state media have shown footage of helicopters with missiles, warplanes in the sky overhead, and soldiers in armored vehicles entering the city itself. The ground forces are hampered somewhat because they must seek out and destroy land mines that were implanted by ISIS.
Casualties on both sides have been reported but are unconfirmed at this point. ISIS claims that it has inflicted serious casualties over the past week, as regime forces took several hills outside of the city prior to its invasion. In its weekly publication, Al Naba, ISIS showed photos of supposed Syrian armored vehicles and SUVs on fire.
However, it is significant that the fighting in Palmyra has not been a subject of its daily radio news broadcasts for the past few days. ISIS victories, even small ones, are always topics of these broadcasts, and the silence is probably significant.
While the re-capture of Palmyra would be a major psychological victory for the Assad regime, the larger picture remains tenuous at best. With talks in Geneva stalled, new hostilities between rebels and the regime could break out at any time. And if Assad hopes to remain in power, he will be dependent upon Russia, which may then have to re-enter the fray.
Continuing the fight against ISIS and keeping rebel forces at bay are huge challenges to this regime. The next several months may indeed be pivotal for Syria.
[Photo by SANA/AP Images]