In May, St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Orchestra performed in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which had been re-captured from the Islamic State in March. Images of Palmyra’s historic ruins beamed live on RT to a soundtrack of Shcherin, Prokofiev and Bach. Via a videoscreen, Russian President Vladimir Putin told the audience that the concert was a victory for civilisation. President Bashar al-Assad said that it was an “important achievement” in the “war on terrorism”.
The significance of Palmyra perhaps lay more in its symbolism than its strategic importance. Palmyra served as a means to counter criticisms of Russia that it had been concentrating its might on moderate rebel groups rather than extremist groups, as it had claimed, and bolstered the regime’s narrative that it was the only real alternative to IS.
Seven months on from the concert, IS is back in Palmyra and Russian airpower has paved the way for the regime and its aligned forces to re-capture the rebel-held enclave of Eastern Aleppo. The contrast between the images of the concert and the destruction of Eastern Aleppo could hardly be starker. The latter is certainly no victory for civilisation.
The re-capture of Aleppo is the most significant victory for the regime in the conflict to date. It has led some to predict that the war is entering its final stages, and that the rebels may soon be defeated. Yet, while there is no doubt that it will come as a heavy blow to Assad’s opponents, IS’s re-entry into Palmyra exposes the limits of regime capacity.
The regime has retaken Eastern Aleppo following more than five months of fighting, made possible only with extensive support from Russian airpower and Hezbollah, Iranian and aligned militia. The regime does not have the ability to conduct such offensives on its own. Masked in the coverage of Aleppo is the fact that the regime’s victory is a better indicator of the rebels’ weakness than the regime’s strength. The Russian intervention in September 2015 effectively ended any rebel hopes of a military victory. And, following the breakdown of talks over a cessation of hostilities in September, coded threats from the US to increase the provision of arms to the rebels have not materialised.
Government forces, meanwhile, rely on a small number of elite units to spearhead offensives. Some of these had reportedly been redeployed from Palmyra to the Aleppo offensive, a clear indication of where the regime’s priorities lie. Yet, this left Palmyra exposed, with the governor of Homs district confirming on Sunday that IS was once again in control of the city and that the army was fighting to take it back. Such events illustrate that the regime does not have the manpower to control the whole of the country, and that it will continue to be stretched and vulnerable to opportunistic attacks. There are also challenges associated with retaking territory, as the government will now be responsible for governing it, and become stretched ever more thinly.
For IS, which is faced with a major offensive in Mosul, increasing pressure in the northern Syrian city of al-Bab and a yet to materialise offensive on Raqqa, the recapture of Palmyra is its first major victory since it last took the city in May 2015. It has used such opportunistic tactics before, perhaps most notably in Baiji last year, which the organisation retook from Iraqi forces, to stifle an offensive against it in the Iraqi province of Anbar. The international community continues to lack a coherent political and military strategy for the areas under IS control in both Syria and Iraq. While it may be on the back foot, events in Palmyra indicate that IS retains the capacity to prey on the weaknesses of its opponents whose focus is on other battles.
Events in Palmyra and Aleppo thus illustrate weaknesses rather than strengths. IS’s recapture of Palmyra serves as a reminder that its defeat should not be taken for granted. And, while Aleppo is a significant milestone in the regime’s war with the rebels, a victory in any meaningful sense is not imminent.
Tim Eaton is a Research Fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Programme at Chatham House. You can follow him on Twitter: el_khawaga