Palmyra, Palmyra, Palmyra. You might have heard over the weekend that Syrian regime forces recaptured the city of Palmyra from the Islamic State group. Palmyra is an ancient city in Homs province with archeological discoveries dating back to the Neolithic period. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, this city has been inhabited for more than three millennia. It used to be one of the richest archeological sites in the world; ISIS appears to have left it mostly in ruins.
A significant amount of that damage could also be attributed to the three week siege that led to ISIS’ retreat which included heavy bombardment from Russian jets. Some Syria watchers and antiquities experts have said there is no reason to expect that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces will treat the city any better than ISIS had. Others believe that much of the damage can eventually be repaired, but it is currently too dangerous to enter the area due to the presence of ISIS nearby and the possibility of land mines.
No independent assessment of the state of the city has been made as most of the information about the current state of Palmyra is coming piecemeal from Assad’s troops or from drone footage. And so much of the focus seems to be on the status of the ruins that it’s been hard to find out what has happened to the inhabitants. Estimates vary from hundreds killed to thousands killed with no way to independently verify any claims.
While the city has been officially retaken by Syrian regime forces, much of the credit for pushing ISIS back belongs to Russian airstrikes and ground support from Shiite militias funded by Hezbollah and Iran. And these will continue to be key pieces in holding this territory and making any further advances against ISIS in Syria. That’s right, despite Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a “withdrawl” from Syria, it’s really more of a shuffling.
Some forces are being drawn back to Russia, but the rest of the forces will be shuffled around inside Syria. Those that remain will still be carrying out airstrikes targeting “terrorists,” which has come to mean anyone not in the Syrian National Army. There’s no doubt that some of Russia’s actions in Syria are in defense of Putin’s longtime pal Assad. Dictators like to help dictators–especially when it comes to maintaining their grip on power and defending rights of national sovereignty. But Putin isn’t that altruistic. He’s in Syria to defend Russia’s warm water ports, Latakia and Tartus.
While almost everyone agrees it is good news that ISIS has been forced to retreat (and suffered up to 400 casualties, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights), it doesn’t leave the situation cut-and-dried.
This advance puts the United States, which has been critical of Russian involvement and still has the stated goal of deposing and replacing Assad, in a somewhat awkward position. Yes, the United States is also actively trying to destroy ISIS, but it is trying to do this by supporting Syrian and Kurdish rebels who are frequently the target of Russian airstrikes and Syrian regime forces. (There is another layer to this involving the ever-shifting polygon between the U.S., the Kurds, Turkey and Russia, but that really deserves its own post.)
So what’s left is this awkward question: if you hate ISIS, but you hate everyone only slightly less, how do you measure progress?
What makes this question even more complex is the way ISIS reacts to their diminishing status. ISIS is losing ground and fighters in both Iraq and Syria. Their response is to lash out in a way that will inflict mass casualty, instill fear and resentment from those who oppose them and potentially confer strength and spur recruitment from among those who support them. This diminishing of their “caliphate” leads to attacks in Europe like the ones we saw in Brussels last week, Turkey last month and Paris last November.
Atrocities like these suck all the air out of the metaphorical foreign policy room. And people and politicians start asking questions. How can we stop this from happening again? Should we really be letting all these refugees in? Do we really want to be part of the EU if it opens our borders to this? What is the point of being in NATO if all the resources we put into it can’t stop this?
And while the U.S. and Europe start to make foreign policy a single issue game, there is someone who benefits from all this. As the desire to quash ISIS grows stronger and stronger, any help from Russia will be welcome, even if it comes with a side of civilian casualties in areas opposing Assad. Russian aid in retaking of cities like Palmyra would certainly be something for the Putin government to bring up when it lobbies against the EU renewing sanctions on Russian businesses and officials, which the EU will reconsider this fall.
And as the world’s attention fixates on Syria and Iraq and Europe’s efforts to stymie the flow of refugees, who will notice a few more Russian troops crossing over into Ukraine? Or moving into Moldova to help settle some unrest in Chisinau. They’re just trying to be helpful, after all.
Yes, there is someone who benefits from all this. Vladimir Putin.