Post Palmyra, where is the real power in Damascus?
For more than four years, all major parties to the Syrian conflict have won, lost and retaken regions of the country. First, protesters and defected soldiers drove government security forces from towns and neighbourhoods, then, after shelling reduced those areas to rubble, the government roared back.
When the Islamic State (ISIS) emerged it, too, conquered and plundered its way to controlling vast reaches of territory but it has been beaten back across northern Syria and now from Palmyra, a town of ancient ruins in the Syrian desert of significant symbolism, in a battle noted as the biggest military defeat for ISIS in two years.
For Damascus, the Palmyra offensive marks a noted, even contradictory, change in tactics. In the past, the Syrian regime had ignored the advance of ISIS in the east and north-east, instead choosing to target civilian areas outside Damascus, Aleppo and the north-west. In November, reports emerged it had been buying oil from the jihadist group. Previous to all this, dozens of extremists who would end up joining ISIS were released from Syrian prisons in 2011 as part of a presidential amnesty for political prisoners.
As such, the Syrian regime’s decision to take on ISIS in Palmyra has caught many critics of Syrian President Bashar Assad off guard.
For a number of years, the Syrian regime appeared the most durable element among the constellation of fighting forces in Syria. It seems to have been beaten on more than one occasion, particularly in 2011 and 2012, only to bounce back.
Today, it remains the number one military and political force in the country.
In reality, however, its ability has little to do with its own endurance and nous, and within this context a look into the nature of the Damascus-Moscow-Tehran relationship post-Palmyra offers an important insight into Syria’s future.
The Palmyra campaign suggests the Syrian Army added little in the way of muscle. Reports say the battle was won by weeks of Russian air strikes and surface-to-surface rockets before ISIS militants fled the city.
Russian jets conducted sorties on 146 ISIS targets outside Palmyra over just three days, according to the Russian Defence Ministry, despite a previously declared end to its campaign in Syria.
According to a report by the Institute for the Study of War, Damascus relied on 5,000 fighters, many of whom were foreign, moving to the Palmyra front. “The death of a member of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps near Palmyra on March 16th suggests that Iran also deployed its own ground forces to oversee its coalition of proxy forces in the operation,” it said.
It is clear that Russia’s military input has kept Damascus afloat but one crucial question remains: Whose idea was it to retake Palmyra — Damascus’s or Moscow’s?
The answer to this would point to where authority lies now and in the future, so let’s look briefly at the truth.
First, ISIS jihadists and their predecessors have been useful to Damascus to sideline and tie up more moderate elements of the military opposition, so why would the Syrian government now decide to oust ISIS from Palmyra? Second, the regime relies on the spread of ISIS to sell its own message to Syrians and the world that it remains the most stabilising force in Syria. In reality, it is quite the opposite.
Thus, the reduction in ISIS’s capabilities would make the Assad regime’s role less important as a guarantor of secularism and rights of religious minorities in the region. This tells us that in all probability it was Russian officials, not Damascus, who decided to take on ISIS.
Does this mean the Syrian regime is finished, if not now, in the coming months or years? Absolutely not, because the Damascus government is the strongest hand Moscow has to play right now. Where Bashar Assad fits in that equation, however, is far less clear.