That the liberation of Palmyra may not be long delayed is strongly suggested by what appear to be reliable reports – confirmed both by the Al-Masdar news agency and by the Iranian news agency Fars – of a mass withdrawal of ISIS fighters from areas west of Palmyra.
According to Al-Masdar ISIS is pulling back its fighters all the way back to Raqqa, which may mean that it is not going to try to hold on to Palmyra.
The withdrawal of ISIS fighters from west of Palmyra has followed a string of setbacks suffered by ISIS, with attempts by ISIS to capture the Syrian military’s T4 air base and nearby towns and villages all repulsed apparently with heavy losses.
There are also unconfirmed reports of a major build-up of Syrian troops in the area, with Syria’s elite Tiger forces supposedly re-deployed to the T4 air base following the Syrian army’s victory in Aleppo. Some reports even say that up to 10,000 Syrian troops are converging on the area, though this number seems excessive, and beyond the situation’s needs or the Syrian army’s capabilities.
If ISIS really is planning to withdraw from Palmyra, then this would be consistent with its overall strategy. The capture of Palmyra always had something of the look of a dawn raid about it, rather than appearing to be part of a carefully laid out strategy to capture and hold territory in and around the town.
When ISIS captured Palmyra in 2015 it fitted into its strategy of expanding its territory in preparation for an eventual march on Damascus. With that prospect gone, and with ISIS under pressure in Mosul and Al-Bab and apparently increasingly in Raqqa as well, Palmyra is of as little importance to ISIS as it is to the Syrian army, and there is little in ISIS seeking to retain it.
ISIS throughout its short existence has repeatedly shown itself to be a highly opportunistic organisation, seizing chances whenever they present themselves in order to throw its enemies off balance. The raid on Palmyra – seizing the town with a force of fighters hurriedly brought together for a lighting strike, capitalising on the fact that the Syrian army’s attention was focused elsewhere on the far more important battle in Aleppo – had very much that look about it.
The fact that seizing Palmyra was a blow to Russia’s prestige – Russia being by far ISIS’s most dangerous enemy, its intervention in September 2015 having turned the tide against it – would have made the temptation to mount the raid and seize the town irresistible.
In other words ISIS seized Palmyra in December not because it has any plan involving the town, but simply because it could.
If so then ISIS’s decision to pull out of Palmyra becomes comprehensible, and may be expected shortly. ISIS has no more interest throwing away the lives of its fighters to defend the town than the Syrian army did on the two occasions when ISIS captured it.
It is a strategy totally at variance with the one the Syrian army follows. Unlike ISIS the Syrian army’s objective is to recapture and hold territory. Where ISIS is able to conduct swift lighting strikes and pull its forces back, the Syrian army because of its limited resources is obliged to advance methodically and incrementally, one step at a time.
It is a struggle pitting the tortoise and the hare, and in the story the tortoise won.