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The Orton Report
Islamic State after its takeover of Palmyra, 12 December 2016
December 12, 2016

Analysis: ‘Palmyra Shows Why Assad Cannot Be A Counter-terrorism Partner’

Kyle Orton

The Islamic State (IS) is supposed to be on its way to defeat. IS is under assault in Mosul and the operation to evict it from Raqqa began a month ago. Just this morning, Turkish-backed rebel forces in Syria have reportedly pierced IS’s defences in al-Bab, IS’s most important city outside of its twin capitals. But on Sunday, after a four-day offensive, IS seized Palmyra. How to explain this?

The first thing to note is that the idea of Palmyra’s fall as a lightning strike that suddenly overwhelmed the city’s defences, when thousands of IS jihadists expelled from Mosul poured in, is false. IS has been shaping this offensive for many months, and the appearance of a sudden collapse—as in Mosul in June 2014—is this long process coming into public view.

The reality is that IS seized an opportunity in Palmyra.

A little background: When IS took over the city the first time in May 2015, near simultaneous with the capture of Ramadi, it encountered little resistance.

The regime continued losing ground over the summer of 2015, provoking a direct Russian intervention in September 2015 that was explained, quite falsely, as an effort to destroy IS. Moscow trained its firepower on the mainstream armed opposition, systematically targeting the parts of the opposition supported by the West, which actually opened space for IS to expand. In July 2016, Russia even attacked US-supported forces that only fight IS.

Rather than counterterrorism, the actual Russian intention was to secure Assad militarily and then extinguish all workable alternatives, thereby rehabilitating Assad politically. To disguise this fact and rewrite the narrative of the intervention as one of anti-extremism, Russia’s ruler, Vladimir Putin, sought to end the major offensive phase of the intervention in March 2016 by pushing IS out of Palmyra.

Within three weeks that month, the pro-regime coalition—the tattered military and paramilitary structures of Bashar al-Assad’s regime, Russian soldiers and Serbian mercenaries, Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards and regular forces, an international brigade of Shia jihadists under Tehran’s control, and the air power of both Assad and Russia—was able to pose among the ancient ruins, a symbolic ratification of the Russian claim to be manning the front line for civilisation against terrorist hordes.

Because the primary objective was political and time-sensitive, most of IS’s force in Palmyra was allowed to leave in what was in effect a coordinated withdrawal. Manipulating jihadists was nothing new for regimes trained by the KGB. Victory declared, the Russians even had a concert.

Read the rest at The International Business Times.