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Explained: strategy behind the battle to rescue the ruins of Palmyra

Syrian Army units have taken back the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State. The units are now also trying to extend their control to include al-Qaryatain, to the south west of Palmyra, and Sukhnah, to the north east.

There are indications that the damage done to the ancient world heritage site which lies just outside Palmyra has been much less than feared. It may even have been limited to the destruction of two or three individual ruins – certainly important in their own right but just a small part of a huge complex that stretches over scores of hectares.

It is already becoming clear that the entire operation would not have been possible without considerable air support from Russia. It also gives the lie to president Vladimir Putin’s claim that the Russian air force has largely completed its operations.

Despite very public proclamations that Russian pilots have been withdrawn from Syria, the reality is that operations continue. Only about a third of Russian front-line strike aircraft have been withdrawn so far – and the size of the Russian helicopter force has actually been increased.

There is clear evidence that Russia has been directing its most recent airstrikes at opponents of the Assad regime in north west Syria, rather than targeting IS. This is not surprising given that IS has scarcely been involved in the opposition to Assad. One major effect of the Russian campaign has been to strengthen the regime as a prelude to a negotiated settlement. This would have significant Russian involvement which, from Moscow’s standpoint, would ensure that post-war Syria would have considerable Russian influence.

Now that Putin has seen that policy reasonably on track, the Russian forces have had time to turn their attention to supporting Assad’s advance on Palmyra, an IS outpost since May 2015.

Its loss was a major symbolic blow. Within a short time, IS fighters made a great show of wantonly destroying ancient ruins in the town.

In taking the city back, Putin can now claim to be doing the west’s job for it. The Palmyra triumph is further proof of Russia’s power and influence – a message that will go down very well with domestic audiences. Russia Today is already reporting that experts from the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg have offered their services in the restoration process.

The Syrian army approaches Palmyra. EPA

Assad, meanwhile, will now say that he has been right all along in his claim that he has been facing a terrorist threat for the past five years. He will remind the world that he has been fighting terrorists rather than genuine protesters and that he, and only he, can defeat IS in Syria. What makes it even sweeter for him is that western capitals, including Washington, have welcomed the retaking of Palmyra from IS.

This is an extraordinary change for the west to digest. Less than four years ago, Barack Obama was on the point of bombing the Assad regime, and now he is giving a guarded welcome to the Syrian advance.

Where next for IS?

The loss of Palmyra is a setback for IS – particularly since it also has had to cede control of the important city of Ramadi in Iraq. But we should be careful about saying that IS is beginning to face defeat.

For one thing, it took five months for Ramadi to fall, and there are reports that IS paramilitaries are still active in and around the city, harrying Iraq troops. The Iraqi government has done little to engage with the country’s Sunni minority, meaning there is still support for IS. The radical group appeals to people who fear the consequences as the largely Shi’a national army and its Iranian-backed militia associates take over large Sunni towns and cities.

IS now also has at least 5,000 paramilitaries in northern Libya, and is preparing to expand its war with western states with the influence gained there.

Meanwhile, the west mistakenly assumes that recent attacks in Europe are a sign that IS is facing defeat in the Middle East and suddenly feels the need to show force. But it is now becoming clear that these attacks had been planned for some time. They may even have been developed as a tactic as long as two years ago.

The idea that IS was fixated on controlling territory to establish a caliphate may have been a misreading of its strategy. A second element as important as territorial presence seems to be its determination to take the war to the “far element”, a determination reinforced by the 20-month coalition air war in Syria.

Brussels, Paris and probable future attacks – which will almost certainly include incidents in Russia – are aimed at exacerbating community tensions and heightening anti-Muslim bigotry to Islamic State’s advantage. As the group is restricted in Syria and Iraq, so it expands the war elsewhere, seeking to weaken its enemy from within.

With all this in mind, the retaking of Palmyra is still significant, but it is part of a much more complex process.

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