Published at The New Arab
When Gergiev appeared among the ancient ruins in Palmyra, it was two months after IS had ostensibly been driven out, under cover of Russian airstrikes, and a ground force had moved in, composed of the remnants of Assad’s battered army, Russian soldiers and mercenaries.
It was hardly surprising that Robert Fisk would welcome a conquest by the pro-Assad coalition. It was rather more surprising that the US State Department reacted by saying “this is a good thing”, and that Boris Johnson—now the British Foreign Secretary—added, “Hooray, I say. Bravo—and keep going.”
Despite Johnson’s contention that IS is “far, far worse” than the pro-Assad forces, there is nothing IS has done that Assad’s forces and their allies have not, and on a grander scale.
The expansion of the zone in which industrial-scale crimes against humanity could be perpetrated hardly seemed something to celebrate. Assad has also spent fourteen years, by commission and omission, building IS up, first for use in destabilising post-Saddam Iraq and later in discrediting and destroying the uprising against his regime. This consideration was particularly salient in the last round over Palmyra.
When Palmyra first fell to IS in May 2015 it was noticed even by pro-Assad commentators how little resistance had been offered. And when IS pulled out in March 2016, there wasn’t much more of a fight because the pro-Assad forces arranged with IS for a withdrawal. That this meant the jihadists would preserve their forces to fight another day did not matter: The recapture of Palmyra was a political, not a military move, designed to re-write the narrative of what the Russian intervention had actually done, and for that it was needed at this precise time.
The truth of it was that Russia’s entire intervention was an exercise in misdirection. Sold as an anti-IS measure, Moscow has in fact not targeted IS in any serious, let alone sustained, way. Even airstrikes into IS-held areas usually massacre civilians. And Moscow has only targeted al-Qaeda fractionally more. The real objective has been to eliminate the mainstream armed opposition to Assad, specifically the parts of the opposition supported by the West—even when attacks on that armed opposition allow IS to expand. In July, Russia attacked a US-supported armed unit that only targets IS, far from Assad’s frontlines. The impression that Russia was giving tacit air support to IS was not without foundation.
While Assad allowed IS to move into Syria in 2012—avoiding even token airstrikes on IS until the summer of 2014—he instead focused his firepower on the nationalist rebels, which was crucial to millions of people falling under the rule of the “caliphate” (and millions more being threatened with terrorism around the world).
Now, again, the pro-regime coalition’s manipulation of IS for its own ends returns to haunt the people of Syria.
IS began an assault around Palmyra on Thursday. Within 48 hours, the strategic hilltops north-west of the city, the nearby oilfields, Jazal and al-Mahr, plus the Jihar gas field had fallen and the Russians had allegedly pulled out of the area. IS claimed to have killed 112 pro-regime troops, while capturing the Muhr Company north of the crucial T4 airbase and fifteen more checkpoints. By Saturday evening, IS was claiming to have downed a regime jet, had broken into the city centre, and overrun half the city in the north and west. On Sunday afternoon, despite a ferocious wave of Russian airstrikes, the pro-Assad coalition’s lines collapsed and IS captured the city.
The lesson in Palmyra is that those who have argued that a “victory” for the pro-Assad coalition is near, and the West should make its accommodations to that—by repudiating the opposition entirely and/or beginning to pay for reconstruction through Assad, turning a blind eye when he uses it for counterinsurgency—are wrong. Even on the most cold-blooded reasoning of “stability,” the regime coalition simply cannot re-establish control over the whole country.
IS seized an opportunity in Palmyra that opened up because the pro-Assad coalition, notwithstanding its best efforts at fortification, was unable to defend Palmyra and launch the offensive that conquered the rebel-held areas of Aleppo City on Monday. This is despite IS coming under attack from Turkey-backed rebels in al-Bab and already being under attack in both its Iraqi and Syrian capitals. IS’ fall-back sanctuaries after it is forced out of the cities are already evident, and it will not be the pro-regime forces who are able to flush them out.
Assad has admitted to a chronic shortage of manpower—20,000 usable troops by some estimates, hence Iran’s attempts to bolster the regime with locally constructed sectarian paramilitary forces and foreign fighters. The aerial superiority and concentration of ground resources meant the pro-Assad forces could clear the insurgents from eastern Aleppo City, but they will find it difficult to hold.
In the meantime, Aleppo’s fall will not end the war. Rather, it will plunge Syria into a new, more violent phase, especially for civilians, where insurgent governance gives way to guerrilla warfare.
This style of warfare and the clear fact that the world abandoned Syria while al-Qaeda-linked groups were fighting in the same trenches as the revolutionary forces, will further embed al-Qaeda into Syria’s landscape. Al-Qaeda has paused foreign operations while it digs into local areas such as in Syria. The West’s ability to deter and respond when al-Qaeda inevitably recommences its attacks, is being eroded with every single bomb dropped on Syrians, every rape, and every murder that we make no attempt to stop in eastern Aleppo.
President Obama has said that he was “very proud” of not launching airstrikes to punish Assad for the massive chemical weapons attack in August 2013, resisting the “Washington playbook” for greater involvement in Syria to pressurise the regime, and keeping the focus on (Sunni) terrorists.
The cost of this policy of effective alignment with the pro-regime coalition—which might yet be formalised by Donald Trump—is extremely high. In moral terms it means being an accomplice to the mass-murder already underway in the areas of Aleppo conquered by the regime coalition. There is an immediate cost beyond that to Western security, though. The strengthening of global jihadism is the price of allowing the Assad’s forces and allies to behave as they choose. And Syria’s unravelling cannot be contained. Aleppo’s fall will send fresh waves of refugees into neighbouring states who will bring with them the realisation that none of them can ever go home. This pushes them towards Europe, and the further empowerment of authoritarian, chauvinist political forces inside the European Union that are friendly to the Kremlin.
2016 might have seemed like a dystopian nightmare, but the seeds sown by allowing the Syrian crisis to run will ensure it was just a warm-up for 2017.