Palmyra and Aleppo, bloody new chapters in the Syrian war
The dramatic story of the Syrian conflict does not end with the fall of Aleppo
Freed from ISIS in a PR assault in March 2016 by Russia and Bashar al-Assad’s forces, Palmyra has fallen back into the hands of ISIS. In what felt like one day, ISIS orchestrated a significant redeployment of forces from Deir Azzor and Raqqa, crossing about 300km of Syria unnoticed, not stopped by anyone during their quick march. Four thousand ISIS fighters recaptured Palmyra in violent clashes within a few hours. According to the reports, all civilians were evacuated as well as archeologists working on Palmyra’s heritage restoration. The Syria Army had to retreat, leaving arsenals and military material that now has fallen into the hands of ISIS. Brutal fighting continues as the army, with the help of Russia’s air force, continue attempts to retake the city.
By irony of fate, having lost Palmyra to ISIS as well as ground in Homs, the Syrian army has liberated Aleppo (while others say Aleppo has fallen). The forces and Syrians loyal to Bashar al-Assad praise the victory and the beginning of the end of war, apparently not taking into consideration that their true enemy occupies over a third of their country and is not going to surrender.
The current situation raises questions about the future development of the conflict, but also gives many answers, confirms apprehensions and reveals a lot of particular traits of the situation that were not so visible before.
One thing that the situation in Palmyra has illustrated is the major problem of Syrian media coverage. There is no independent journalism in Syria. All that is at disposal of the people is state media which spreads more propaganda than truth, some independent sources, with hardly reliable sources as they cannot be checked, ISIS propaganda channels and social media accounts of the rebels, fighters or people who are reportedly tweeting being on the ground but too often appear to be somewhere else. In all cases, you cannot trust the information you receive - at best it can be biased, at worst it can be fake. The Syrian conflict has killed not only 500,000 people, but also independent journalism, as long as the journalists are violently targeted by al-Qaeda affiliated fighters, extremists and ISIS. And in these five years of war, those who stayed and survived have lost their unbiased approach.
The dramatic story of the Syrian conflict does not end with the fall of Aleppo, despite the hopes of Syrians loyal to DamascusMaria Dubovikova
Another issue is that just reporting anything that can be perceived as pro-Assad or anti-Assad leads to them immediately being labeled pro or anti-Assad. In such conditions, the media has been boiling over with extremely controversial information about Palmyra with the Russian media has been continuously repeating that “Palmyra is ours” when even the Syrians themselves have admitted that it is not.
However, this panicked media paralysis is understandable and this reveals the extreme sensitivity Moscow feels regarding what is happening in Syria.
To understand what the loss of Palmyra means for Russia we should look at its interests in Syria in general. Russia pursues many goals in Syria - image building, declaring its full return to the world stage as a great power and other geopolitical interests based on claiming back its lost position in the Middle East. For Russia, Syria is a matter of defending principles and the basis of multipolar world, which is important to limit the spreading influence of the US and its monopoly on managing global affairs. For Russia, the liberation of Palmyra was both a declaration of the intention to fight extremists in Syria as well as a strong PR maneuver that was crowned by the worldwide broadcast of a breathtaking concert of internationally recognized maestro Valéry Gergiev in the amphitheater of Palmyra that once served as a place of public executions by ISIS. Since then Russia’s main target was mostly Aleppo, on which the eyes of the global community were focused. And the loss of Palmyra is an extreme blow to its far-reaching ambitions. There is no doubt that after the “liberation” of Aleppo, Russia will concentrate the might of its air force on Palmyra. And forces loyal to Damascus will probably re-capture the city from ISIS. But do they have any strategy for continued fighting and the power to keep all that is “liberated” in their hands?
The Syrian army is in such a vulnerable condition that it can hardly conduct actions in several directions at the same time, and being concentrated in one battle zone, it can hardly retain the attack in the other one and guarantee safety in liberated zones. ISIS is not weakened despite all hopes and they counter the lack of weaponry with high military proficiency and experience.
The liberation of Aleppo does not make the situation any easier. The opportunity for equal and balanced negotiations has been lost. The idea that Assad must step down does not seem so sound, especially for those Syrians loyal to him, for whom he is a president-liberator. This idea does not seem reasonable for Assad, as long he has his own truth and the current bloody victory will also make him deaf to all Russia’s exhortations to step down and start a transition process. There is a high risk that the rebels will probably radicalize and join ISIS as many moderates have been exterminated in Aleppo and Syria.
Furthermore, after the loss of Aleppo the Western powers will have a strong temptation to fight ISIS less thoroughly and push it to concentrate its forces in Syria. Possibly they would have a temptation to finish what the rebels have failed to do – destroy the Syrian army and overthrow Assad. The West has a long experience of using evil against evil. It is just one of the possible scenarios for the future but it does not seem so improbable.
If the Syrians could redirect all their hatred and aim it exclusively at the core evil of all humanity, they would have succeeded in defeating it a long time ago. The defeat of ISIS lies in the unity of the Syrian people. Being influenced by global players, for whom they are just pawns in the global geopolitical game, they are losing their lives, future and possibly their Motherland. The dramatic story of the Syrian conflict does not end with the fall of Aleppo, despite the hopes of Syrians loyal to Damascus, but it just starts a new chapter, and God knows, it could be much bloodier.
Maria Dubovikova is a President of IMESClub and CEO of MEPFoundation. Alumni of MGIMO (Moscow State Institute of International Relations [University] of Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Russia), now she is a PhD Candidate there. Her research fields are in Russian foreign policy in the Middle East, Euro-Arab dialogue, policy in France and the U.S. towards the Mediterranean, France-Russia bilateral relations, humanitarian cooperation and open diplomacy. She can be followed on Twitter: @politblogme