Aron Lund writes: Forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad on March 27 retook the desert city of Palmyra, which had been lost to the self-proclaimed Islamic State in May 2015. Its loss came at a difficult time for Assad, whose exhausted and overstretched army was losing territory on several fronts while the decaying economy in government-controlled areas was threatening to undo his regime from within. Given Palmyra’s location at the center of valuable gas fields and position as a nexus of major transportation routes in Syria’s eastern deserts, its loss compounded Assad’s problems. The government found itself with an expanded eastern frontline, with the Islamic State burrowing into the Qalamoun mountains, north of Damascus, and the Badiya region, where central Syria’s fertile plains around Homs and Hama fade into the desert.
A reversal of fortunes began on September 30, 2015, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered his country’s air force into action in Syria. Since the end of 2015, Assad has significantly improved his position in western Syria — where he is fighting other rebel and jihadi forces — and made limited advances against the Islamic State near Aleppo. The current push — which came after a truce with mainstream rebel factions — began on February 27 and marked the first major push east. Shortly after that Putin announced a somewhat disingenuous withdrawal from Syria on March 14.
Not only has Assad’s advance into Palmyra redrawn Syria’s military battlefield, but it also looks likely to accelerate the shift of its politics. [Continue reading…]