By Jacob L. Shapiro
March 28, 2016
Summary The media is awash with triumphant stories of Bashar al-Assad’s regime retaking Palmyra from the Islamic State. The only problem with this narrative is that according to multiple sources, Palmyra was not retaken so much as it was given up. According to the BBC, the Institute for the Study of War (ISW) and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, IS withdrew from the city in the face of superior numbers and firepower, and saved the bulk of its force in the city to fight another day.
Palmyra is a strategically important town for both the Assad regime and IS, but not because it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. If there were more Roman ruins in Raqqa, the IS capital, no doubt the rest of the world would be more outraged over IS control there. For the Assad regime, Palmyra means strategic depth: if forces loyal to Assad hold Palmyra and can project force around the city, the major population centers of Hama and Homs are no longer on the front lines with IS. For IS, Palmyra is important because a strong force could use it as a base from which to cut east and separate IS forces in Syria from Iraq.
This is only the second time that the Assad regime has taken the fight to IS. The last time was in a regime offensive in Aleppo province last November, when, with Russian support, Assad’s troops were able to lift the IS siege on Kuweires air base. That victory was to be part of a larger operation that enabled Syrian regime forces to gain the upper hand against the rebels in Aleppo province. Now, the Assad regime is taking advantage of the (relative) quiet of theceasefire with the Syrian rebels to take the fight to IS at a strategically significant point.