The Syrian Army Lost Palmyra, So Russia Blamed the United States
Palmyra was the Syrian Army’s city to lose
by PAUL IDDON
Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov indirectly blamed the United States for the Islamic State’s takeover of Palmyra, which occurred on the weekend of Dec. 10–11. He said the militants launched the operation from Iraq and “apparently Mosul” and proceeded to advance across “territories patrolled by aircraft of the U.S.-led coalition.”
This, Lavrov remarked, “makes one think that — and I really hope to be wrong here — that it is orchestrated and coordinated to give a respite to those thugs, who are entrenched in eastern Aleppo.”
The fall of Palmyra to the Islamic State once more coincided with the latest Syrian advance into Aleppo’s eastern neighborhoods, effectively crushing the rebel presence in the city.
But Lavrov’s suggestion has several problems.
To be sure, there is little doubt some militants have moved from Mosul to Syria. In the days before the Iraqi offensive toward Mosul began on Oct. 17, several senior Islamic State leaders fled the city and headed toward Syria, according to U.S. officials.
Then Iraqi and Kurdish forces surrounded the city from its south, east and north. This conspicuously left the western side of that city open, potentially for militants to withdraw to their smaller Syrian stronghold in Raqqa.
“We’ll try to give them an escape to run to Syria,” Maj. Salam Jassim, a commander in Iraq’s elite special forces, said on the eve of the operation.
However, a spokesman in the Iraqi military, Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul, added that, “If we do that, then this area will become a killing zone as we target them with our own aircraft.”
Indeed, the Iraqi Air Force, backed by the U.S.-led coalition, did just that when an Islamic State convoy attempted to flee Fallujah in late June.
According to the British journalist Robert Fisk, the Syrian military believes Washington plotted to “to swamp Syria with hordes of ISIS fighters” and essentially make the militants a problem for Damascus and its Kremlin backer to deal with. The Iraqi Shiite-majority Hashd Al Shaabi paramilitaries have since moved to block routes from Mosul to the Syrian border.
And less than a week into the Mosul operation, Lavrov pointed out that Mosul was not fully encircled, leaving open the possibility that Islamic State could evacuate to Raqqa. “I hope [the fact Mosul was not fully encircled] it’s because they simply couldn’t do it, not because they wouldn’t do it,” Lavrov said.
On Nov. 18, weeks after the Hashd Al Shaabi began an ongoing offensive to seal off routes connecting Mosul to the Syrian border, Lavrov claimed that Russia was taking preventive measures against an Islamic State retreat by bombing that country’s northwestern province of Idlib and central province of Homs.
“Our aviation and the aviation of Syria work only in the provinces of Idlib and Homs in order to prevent the I.S. from crossing into Syria from Mosul,” Lavrov said, following a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
But wait — there is no known Islamic State presence in northwestern Idlib province. Al Qaeda affiliated Islamist groups, yes. But not Islamic State. And how would the militants make it to Idlib? The province is sealed off. They’d have to pass through Syrian, Turkish or Kurdish territory first.
Both Russian and U.S. warplanes have struck Islamic State militants near Palmyra since the city’s capture. Aircraft from the U.S.-led coalition destroyed 14 tanks near Palmyra between Dec. 11–13, according to a coalition statement.
While Lavrov’s comments don’t rise to the level of a direct accusation, they still leave open an apparent suspicion in Moscow and Damascus that Washington is conspiring to burden them with neutralizing the Islamic State’s remaining militants.
But it’s a strange insinuation. On Nov. 6, under Washington’s instruction and support, the U.S.-backed, 30,000-strong Syrian Democratic Forces in Syria launched an offensive toward the Islamic State’s Raqqa stronghold in tandem with the ongoing Mosul operation in neighboring Iraq.
There was a sense of urgency in the SDF operation since U.S. intelligence sources determined that the Islamic State was planning a terrorist attack against the West from that city.
“We know they’re up to something. And it’s an external plot, we don’t know exactly where, we don’t know exactly when,” U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend, the commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, said before the launch of the SDF operation.
In late November, the French government reported that it had foiled an attempted Islamic State attack. The five suspected conspirators were provided “common instructions” on how to get weapons from the “Iraq-Syria zone” to carry out their attack.
So, the idea that Washington is worried about terrorist threats emanating from Islamic State territory in Syria, where it is arming and directly supporting an SDF offensive, while at the same time trying to “swamp Syria” with Islamic State militants is unlikely, even absurd.
Townsend also pointed out that while the United States and its allies are facing “stiff” resistance in Mosul, Raqqa will present more of a challenge even though it’s much smaller. This is because the United States will have to continue to placate Turkey, which opposes participation of the Kurdish-led SDF in taking Raqqa.
Raqqa’s location in Syria makes it difficult to surround with a significantly smaller and less-equipped proxy force. This fact alone makes it extremely unlikely that Washington would willingly permit more Islamic State militants to reinforce that key Syrian city.
Furthermore, what remains of the Syrian Arab Army and its affiliated militias have long struggled to fight on multiple fronts simultaneously, as the overstretched SAA must redirect troops for offensives, such as ending the Aleppo siege. This left Palmyra and a hodgepodge of left-behind pro-regime militia fighters vulnerable.
Risking Palmyra but finishing off Aleppo is probably a wiser strategy from the regime’s perspective. It also corresponds with the Syrian regime’s view that the Idlib rebels — and not the Islamic State to the east —are its greatest threat. The regime concentrates its limited forces likewise.
Russian suspicions that the United States is seeking to swamp Syria with jihadists so they can avoid having to confront them elsewhere is also hypocritical in light of compelling evidence that Russia tolerated the movement of Russian Islamists from its own country to Syria.
As late as September 2014, Russia deported and even gave fake passports to known Islamist militants operating on Russian soil. One security officer in the North Caucasus rather bluntly summed up the policy, which was supported by the FSB and opposed by Chechen leader and former warlord Ramzan Kadyrov.
“[W]e opened borders, helped [the jihadis] all out and closed the border behind them by criminalising this type of fighting. If they want to return now, we are waiting for them at the borders,” the security officer said.
“Everyone’s happy — they are dying on the path of Allah, and we have no terrorist acts here and are now bombing them in [Syria’s] Latakia and Idlib.”
There’s a cold military logic to such a strategy, best summed up as “it’s better to kill terrorists over there than over here.” Such a policy contributed at least partially to the swamping of Syria with Islamist militants. Russia has since reversed the policy and cracked down on militants attempting to leave for Syria.
Given the United States’ stated “urgency” to destroy the Islamic State in Syria too, Washington would unlikely intentionally permit as many as 5,000-7,000 militants in Mosul to escape unmolested to Syria, where they could reorganize and plot more heinous crimes against humanity.