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Is Palmyra's Fall Strategic Loss for Syria?

  • Heather Murdock

This picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 on the website of Islamic State militants, shows black columns of smoke rising through the air during a battle between Islamic State militants and the Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra.

This picture released on Wednesday, May 20, 2015 on the website of Islamic State militants, shows black columns of smoke rising through the air during a battle between Islamic State militants and the Syrian government forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra.

The swift takeover of Palmyra—after only days of fighting—may have been a huge military victory for the Islamic State group but it may have also been, in part, a calculated strategic loss for the Syrian government.

Mario Abou Zeid, a researcher for the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, says Damascus is fighting rebel forces that it considers a much greater threat than the Islamic State

“The Assad regime would rather pave the way for the Islamic State,” he said, "rather than surrendering any city or any facility for the opposition.”

Looking forward, Assad could be protecting his interests, according to Zeid. The United States-led coalition is fighting the Islamic State but supporting the rebels. If a city falls to the Islamic State rather than to rebel groups, Assad might believe he would have support retaking the city in the future.

Failed anti-IS strategy

But on the face of it, the fall of Palmyra was a blow for all of the Islamic State’s enemies, including the Syrian government, which had controlled the city. By taking Palmyra, the Islamic State essentially cut the land route from the capital, Damascus, to government-held eastern cities.

Additionally, jihadis from all over Syria were being held in the prison at Palmyra, and it could be a source of future recruits. “This will give access to the Islamic State to free some new jihadis and people who are kept in these prisons and use them to their own advantage,” Zeid said.

The takeover of Palmyra also signals that the strategies employed by the U.S.-led coalition to fight the Islamic State appear to be unsuccessful thus far, according to Chatham House analyst Tim Eaton.

"When we see the events in recent days in Ramadi and now in Palmyra,” he said. “We see that this isn’t necessarily going so well.”

The international community maintains its strategies are working, despite evidence to the contrary. “The truth is, to reverse this course will continue to take a commitment that the international community has been unwilling to give up until now,” Eaton countered.

National treasures, national pride

Palmyra is home to one of the region’s most beloved heritage sites with ruins, art and artifacts going back thousands of years. The Islamic State has destroyed ancient treasures and posted videos of the destruction online.

The group also sells whatever treasures “aren’t nailed down,” Eaton said, using the profits to partially fund itself. And the loss of Palmyra’s treasures would be far more significant than just losing valuable items, he added. The loss would be a blow to the Syrian people’s national identity, which has been fractured by a war that has deepened sectarian differences.

"If you're talking about what kind of state post-war Syria will be,” he said, “the scars that will be so fresh from these terrible fights, we have to look at things that will bind Syrians together and this sense of shared history - of shared cultures.”

“I think that’s a really bad omen," he added.

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