Even as the ‘Great Battle of Aleppo’ approaches its conclusion, confirmation that the elimination of the Jihadi pocket there will not end the war came with an ISIS offensive to recapture Palmyra in central Syria.
ISIS launched this offensive on Thursday, and it is apparently being given heavy publicity by ISIS in its various media outlets.
As is always the case in Syria, the fog of war is heavy, and it is not possible to know exactly what is going on.
However it seems that ISIS captured part of Palmyra yesterday but was then driven back by Syrian army counterattacks supported by the Russian air force.
The very latest reports however suggest that this morning ISIS attacked again, and that it is now in control of most of Palmyra.
A number of points can be made about these events.
Firstly, if ISIS has indeed recaptured Palmyra, then its possession of the city will be brief.
Though Palmyra’s military significance is debatable, its significance for the Russians as a cultural symbol which they liberated in March is huge. That guarantees the Russians will commit whatever forces are necessary to retake it – including Russian Special Forces which reports say are being sent there – and that in turn guarantees that if ISIS has indeed taken Palmyra it will be retaken from ISIS shortly.
The ISIS offensive against Palmyra does however illustrate a number of important points.
Firstly, it is clear that ISIS is not a spent force.
According to the Russian military ISIS has brought together 5,000 fighters for this offensive, sending fighters from Iraq, Raqqa in Syria, and from its forces besieging the eastern Syrian desert city of Deir Ezzor.
By the standards of the Syrian war this is a large force, and it is a certainty that the Syrian troops defending Palmyra have been heavily outnumbered.
ISIS has been able to launch this offensive notwithstanding US claims that it is fighting for its life as it faces US led offensives against Mosul and Raqqa.
There is in fact no sign of a serious US led offensive against Raqqa, whilst the offensive against Mosul has stalled. I said this some weeks ago on 19th November 2016, and recent reports in the Western media have confirmed it.
Obviously if ISIS really were under serious pressure in Raqqa it would not be able to send fighters from there to attack Palmyra. ISIS’s latest offensive against Palmyra is therefore proof that the US led offensive against Raqqa is a fiction, whilst the fact ISIS has sent fighters from Iraq to Palmyra shows it is still a formidable force in Iraq as well.
Secondly, the ISIS offensive against Palmyra has obviously been timed to coincide with the Syrian army’s offensive in Aleppo, which has obliged the Syrian army to redeploy many of its best troops to Aleppo.
Inevitably there will be suspicions that ISIS’s offensive against Palmyra is intended to relieve pressure on the Jihadis in Aleppo by forcing the Syrian army to redeploy troops from Aleppo to fight ISIS in Palmyra.
This is certainly possible. Collusion between ISIS and Al-Qaeda (which is leading the Jihadi resistance in Aleppo) has definitely occurred previously, as I discussed here on 2nd November 2016.
ISIS is however a highly opportunistic organisation. Its method is to launch lighting attacks that exploit its adversaries’ moments of weakness. It is not impossible the attack on Palmyra is simply an example of this, with ISIS taking advantage of the Syrian army’s distraction by its focus on the battle for Aleppo.
Thirdly, the extent of ISIS’s success in this latest offensive once again highlights a key fact about this war, which is the limited manpower resources of the Syrian army.
Quite simply, the Syrian army does not have the men to be strong everywhere. As its focus over the last few months has shifted to clearing the countryside around Damascus and to liberating Aleppo – cities of far greater importance to Syria than Palmyra – it has been unable to press home the advantage it gained in the spring in Palmyra, and it has had to draw down its forces there.
That is why the Syrian troops in Palmyra were both heavily outnumbered by ISIS, and have had to pull back.
To get a sense of this consider this report from Al-Masdar, which has sources within the Syrian military
“The militants consequently captured Al-Amariyah district and a hilltop of the same name, Officers Housing complex, and the Citadel of Palmyra, which made any further attempts to hold positions inside the city completely senseless. According to several reports, some Syrian Arab Army units still remain in the city providing cover to their comrades that retreat westwards. After retreat is complete these units will withdraw as well.”
(bold italics added)
The Russians, whose military ethos when placed in such situations is to fight on until relieved (consider for example the conduct of Russian peacekeepers in the South Ossetian capital of Tskhinvali during the 2008 war there) must find this attitude baffling and deeply frustrating, and it is easy to imagine the recriminations between them and the Syrians that must now be underway.
The reality is that Syrian troops throughout the war have shown no lack of courage, and some of their officers have shown themselves to be determined and courageous battlefield commanders.
However their lack of numbers means that they simply cannot afford to risk the potential losses that come with heroic stands. It makes more sense for them in these situations to pull back, saving themselves so that they can go back on the attack later.
In summary, this latest ISIS offensive will not change the course of the Syrian war. It will not prevent the fall of what is left of the Jihadi pocket of eastern Aleppo, which the Syrian military now says will take place within the next 48 hours. Nor will ISIS retain control of Palmyra for very long if as the latest reports suggest it has captured it.
However it does show that the war in Syria is far from over, that ISIS remains a formidable enemy, and that is under far less pressure in Raqqa and in Iraq than US claims suggest.
It also shows that the Syrians and the Russians are still hampered by the Syrian army’s lack of numbers, which has heavily conditioned the way it has fought the war.
What that means is that the war will continue at least for some time even after the Jihadi pocket in eastern Aleppo is finally extinguished, and that there is much bitter fighting ahead.