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For the second March in a row, the Islamic State (IS) was driven from control of Palmyra this week in an operation led by Iranian ground forces and supported by Russian airstrikes—the actual instruments of power that remain to the government of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. The primary interest this time is that the United States-led international anti-IS coalition and its Operation INHERENT RESOLVE (OIR) provided crucial assistance to the regime.
The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the adjacent, inhabited area, more commonly known as Tadmor, were first taken by IS on 20 May 2015, nearly without a fight, as even many pro-regime sources complained at the time. IS lost the city on 27 March 2016 to a Russian-led offensive meant as a symbolic capstone to Moscow’s September 2015 intervention, which had notably left IS alone.
This withdrawal was coordinated with IS in order to allow Russia the time-sensitive victory that met its political needs—to rehabilitate Assad as the lesser-evil, the frontline for civilization against barbarian hordes. Russian president Vladimir Putin even brought an orchestra to host a concert in the amphitheatre. The jihadists regrouped, however, and with the pro-Assad coalition interminably focused on crushing the mainstream rebellion to leave a binary choice—Assad or terrorists—IS would embarrass Moscow’s pretentions to have the situation under control.
Despite a decision by the pro-regime coalition to “prevent the city falling at all costs,” the Russian garrison surrendered its positions and IS overran Palmyra again on 11 December 2016 after a four-day offensive. This was a day before the regime coalition broke rebel lines in eastern Aleppo City, which would result in numerous immediate massacres and the deportation of 40,000 people ten days later, itself a crime against humanity to add to the raft of such crimes that were committed during the Aleppo offensive. The regime coalition simply could not defend all of its fronts.
So how was it that, on 2 March 2017, the pro-Assad coalition recaptured Palmyra?
From OIR data, it is clear that the U.S.-led Coalition assisted in the pro-Assad coalition conquering Palmyra, and that this kind of (at best indirect) coordination with the regime coalition around Palmyra has been occurring for some time:
Between the fall of Palmyra the first time and its re-conquest in March 2016, OIR launched eight airstrikes in and around Palmyra against IS, with a notable concentration—a third of those strikes—during the pro-regime offensive. Between the Assadist conquest of the city and their re-losing it, the U.S. carried out nineteen airstrikes in and around Palmyra. It is difficult to define this other than as air support for the regime coalition.
Between the onset of the IS offensive on 8 December 2016 that captured the city the second time and the regime coalition retaking it, OIR launched eighty-two airstrikes, including twenty-three strikes over nine consecutive days between 19 and 27 February.
The U.S. Defence Department has referred to Palmyra as “part of the [Russian] battle space”. This means that, for the OIR to have operated there on this scale, the U.S. must have had an arrangement with the Russians, and thus at least indirectly Assad and Iran, who control the ground.
The U.S. did allow in December that it might conduct airstrikes near Palmyra if IS starting moving, with materiel captured in Palmyra, into U.S. battlespaces and also to interdict external attacks that might perhaps be guided from this territory. The U.S., though, insisted that they “don’t coordinate … activities as much as de-conflict them with the Russians”. The line between these two things is indistinct generally, and in this case it is clear that what occurred was closer to collaboration than a simple avoidance of clashes.
It had seemed doubtful the pro-regime coalition could simultaneously hold Aleppo, where it was evident the insurgency would—as it since has—revert to insurgent tactics, and move into the east. The provision of Western air support had seemed one of the few means of bridging that gap in capacity for the regime, and now it has.
This is hardly a new situation. OIR’s mission is itself an example of de facto aerial support for the pro-Assad coalition. The Assad regime was informed by the Coalition, via Iran, that it was off-limits when OIR’s airstrikes in Syria began 2014. Assad performed an “economy of force,” leaving the U.S. and allies to deal with IS in the east, while Assad and his allies focused on destroying the mainstream opposition in the west to force the binary choice mentioned above. The regime has hardly been coy about its de-prioritization of IS.
During the regime coalition’s attack on Aleppo City throughout 2016, it was difficult to know which side the U.S. was on: Washington did nothing to counter the offensive and at times bolstered, or tried to bolster, the pro-Assad forces directly, in rhetoric by giving credibility to the (false) claim that insurgents in the city were mostly al-Qaeda, and later by forming a military pact with Russia that, if successful, would have weakened Assad’s foes considerably.
It is also noteworthy that the 17 September 2016 Coalition airstrike, for which the U.S. apologized, that had killed sixty-or-so regime soldiers, carried with it the very strong suggestion of a Coalition effort to provide close-air support to pro-regime forces gone wrong.
During the administration of Barack Obama, U.S. foreign policy throughout the region tilted toward the Islamic Republic of Iran, and this was especially notable in Syria, where Tehran’s proxy regime was unhindered in any meaningful way despite the regime’s record of collusion with IS to murder American citizens and its crimes against humanity that not only echo the bureaucratized slaughter of the Holocaust, but created a wave of refugees that destabilized Europe, radicalizing the politics of the Continent in a way that threatens the Western Alliance and benefits Russia. To the very last the administration defended its record.
Donald Trump had given indications that he would continue this policy, just without the rhetoric that masked a reorientation in the old language of containing Iran and working with regional partners. As with so much else around Trump, this was simultaneously accompanied by its opposite, when he appointed a Cabinet of hawkish inclinations toward the Iranian revolution, something that, if acted upon, would axiomatically have meant a harder line in dealing with Russia and Assad. So far, however, in the concrete terms of missiles and territorial control, the Trump administration has continued Obama’s policy of enabling the pro-Assad coalition.