Aymenn Al-Tamimi writes: The retaking of the ancient city of Palmyra from the Islamic State (ISIS) by the Syrian regime backed with intense Russian airpower is predictably being hailed as a victory over terrorism. Symbolically, of course, the recapture of Palmyra allows for the regime and Russia to portray themselves as the defenders of civilization over barbarism, as ISIS had destroyed some of the most archaeological sites in the area last year. But what do the events tell us about Russia’s broader approach towards ISIS? What may unfold in the aftermath of Palmyra’s recapture?
Fighting in the vicinity of Palmyra has occurred ever since ISIS took the city in a swift offensive through the Homs desert last year in which regime forces melted away on multiple occasions without much of a fight. This was similar to the losses the regime experienced in Idlib province at the hands of rebel offensives in the same year, pointing to broader problems of manpower shortages facing the regime, which led to a shift in strategy focusing on the defense of perceived vital areas, including setting up of local militia formations such as Coastal Shield in Latakia and Homeland Shield in Suwayda’ designed to recruit locals to fight within their own areas. These calculations changed somewhat with the official commencement of Russian intervention in the fall of 2015 in the form of intense airstrikes, allowing the regime to go on the offensive in multiple areas. [Continue reading…]