Yezid Sayigh and Aron Lund write: When the extremist group known as the Islamic State took control over Palmyra, an ancient city nestled deep in the Syrian desert, in late May, it was a clear strategic defeat for the government of President Bashar al-Assad. As the battles neared the astounding historical ruins of Palmyra, the Islamic State got all the media attention it could hope for and Assad’s weakness was exposed to the world. By breaking open and destroying the infamous Palmyra Military Prison, which was for decades the dark heart of the Syrian regime’s system of coercion, the Islamic State has reasserted its anti-Assad credentials in the eyes of many Syrians.
This winter, the Islamic State suffered severe losses during the long battle for the Kurdish town of Kobane on the Syrian-Turkish border and it continues to lose territory to the Kurds in northern Syria. Even so, the jihadi group has been able to advance elsewhere in Syria. And despite structural obstacles to its expansion and a string of defeats in Iraq, it recently captured the provincial capital of Ramadi, while Islamic State forces retreating from the northern city of Tikrit have turned to wreak havoc on the Baiji oil refinery. However, it is Syria that presents the most promising arena for the Islamic State, which seems to be aiming for high-profile victories in the lead-up to the holy month of Ramadan and the one-year anniversary of its unilateral declaration of a “caliphate” in late June 2014.
Exploiting the recent weakening and territorial losses of the Syrian government, the Islamic State has begun to pressure Hasakah City, north of Deir Ezzor. In parallel it has launched a new offensive in Aleppo, striking government forces in the Sheikh Najjar industrial area and pushing toward the key Bab al-Salam crossing on the Syrian-Turkish border near Azaz, to cut rival Sunni insurgents off from foreign support. If this succeeds, it could be of immense significance for the future of the war. But the taking of Palmyra, the central hub of Syria’s desert road network connecting southwest to northeast, has also opened new possibilities. [Continue reading…]