December 13, 2016

TSG IntelBrief: The Islamic State Retakes Palmyra

• On December 11, both Syrian regime and Islamic State media outlets reported that the Islamic State had retaken Palmyra.

• The Syrian government’s loss of Palmyra shows the difficulty of holding and governing territory after taking it from the Islamic State.

• The Assad regime’s focus—along with that of Russia and Iran—on Aleppo highlights the manpower limitations that air support cannot make up for.

• The fate of Palmyra could portend that of other parts of Syria, as tenuous control over population centers and a still-strong Islamic State insurgency could be a recipe for potential Islamic State gains.

Despite experiencing eighteen months of sustained losses in cities and towns it once held in Iraq and Syria, the so-called Islamic State still maintains the ability to mount offensives. This ability is particularly acute in Syria, where the Assad regime has been able to make significant gains with help of intensive Russian air support, but lacks the manpower on the ground to hold the territory it is retaking. On December 11, the Islamic State once again took control of the town of Palmyra. In doing so, the group seized not just a large cache of heavy weapons, but also seized—at least temporarily—a tangible and symbolic victory when its fortunes in Iraq and Syria are at their nadir.

It is uncertain how long the Islamic State will remain in control of Palmyra, which it lost to the Syrian regime and Russian forces nine months ago. What does appear certain, however, is that the ongoing dynamic of tenuous control of territory by the Assad regime, followed by tenuous control by the Islamic State, is one that is likely to continue. Though the Islamic State has been significantly diminished—both in terms of territory as well as its fighting ranks—it remains a very powerful terror group by the standards of asymmetric warfare. Indeed, the weakened Islamic State still poses a threat to the cities and towns in Syria. Even as the group loses control of territory, it still benefits from the ensuing chaos, as well as the absence of effective governance and stability. 

The ongoing battle for Aleppo is the focus for the Assad regime and its backers; Assad believes that the fall of Aleppo could bring the eventual end of the rebellion in its current form. The loss of Palmyra—for however brief of a period—demonstrates that the resolution to Syria’s civil war is far more complicated than the regime regaining control of Aleppo. While the Islamic State has not been among the Assad regime’s primary targets, the group is still intent and capable of military gains at the expense of the regime.

Even when Raqqa is ultimately retaken by the U.S.-led anti-Islamic State coalition, the conditions to prevent the resurgence of the Islamic State in its Syrian capital are far from a reality. Indeed, the experience of Palmyra is likely to be repeated across Syria over the next year, as the Islamic State is pushed out of territory but not dealt a definitive blow. As it has in the past, the Islamic State will likely regroup away from population centers until the group is strong enough and its opponents are weak enough—or not focused enough—to strike again. As the Assad regime gains momentum, it is moving towards what may prove to be the most significant Pyrrhic victory of recent times, with years of insurgency and terrorism to go along with the continuation of Bashar al-Assad’s repressive dictatorship.


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