Palmyra: A Milestone in the Islamic State War
The Syrian city of Palmyra, with its beautiful Roman architecture and rich history, has fallen into dark days. The Islamic State took control, striking a powerful and strategic blow to the Assad regime, his sponsors in Iran, and also against the Iraqis fighting to subdue the Islamic State in Ramadi and elsewhere.
Some analysts predicted the fall of Palmyra would be little more than a setback in the battle against the Islamic State. But the injuries sustained in this attack could yet prove fatal for Assad’s power and will severely limit Iranian, Iraqi and American forces in their fight against the Islamic State.
Geographically, Palmyra was a blow delivered right at the center of the nation. While on the edge of Assad’s territory, it is a city in the heart of the country itself. The implications of taking such a central city are huge for the Islamic State.
Firstly, Palmyra lies on the road between two areas of Islamic State control. On the west is the embattled city of Homs; on the east is Deir al-Zour, an Islamic State city. The two hotbeds of Islamic State operations are now linked by way of Palmyra. The capture of the city now means 50 percent of Syria is in Islamic State hands. A terrorist can get in his pickup or Humvee at breakfast and be across the nation by sundown without leaving Islamic State-controlled territory.
A Link to Iraq
But the networking is even more extensive and far-reaching. The Islamic State just took over the last Syrian-controlled border with Iraq—the al-Waleed crossing. Territory between Palmyra and Iraq is sparsely populated. The deserts surrounding Palmyra extend all the way to the Islamic State-controlled city of Ramadi in Iraq. By taking these two cities, the terrorists have also captured the no man’s land in between, linking their territory in both nations and giving them unrestricted travel from the heart of one nation to the other.
There has always been an issue of fighting an organization that isn’t bound by borders. Should the Islamic State be pressured in one nation, it can easily move or bring in reinforcements. This is made possible by loose borders. With the seizure of al-Waleed, the Islamic State has another way to funnel fighters from al-Anbar in Iraq to the front lines in Syria or vice versa.
A Jewel in the Islamic State Crown
The blow is not only geographic, but also strongly symbolic. The city of Palmyra is steeped in history. It has seen the come and go of some of the most powerful empires of the Middle East. It was ruled over by the Roman, the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires. Now the city is held by a new group that wishes to be a world-ruling caliphate. The terrorists no doubt wish to strengthen their legitimacy by interweaving themselves with such history.
As a world heritage area, the ancient city holds an array of beautiful Roman structures. The site is made iconic by the long lines of Roman columns that trace the landscape. As such, the fall of the city has gained the Islamic State even more attention. Calls to preserve the site have come from around the globe. The Islamic State has shown no leniency to historic sites in the past, trashing museums and defacing ancient treasures across northern Iraq.
The terrorists now hold Palmyra—a rare cultural gem. No doubt they will use this iconic city as a podium to gain more clout and attention.
The End of Assad?
As a follower of the Assad regime, it would be hard not to get disheartened by the news that the Islamic State has taken half the country and could soon be knocking on the doors of Damascus.
In the days after the attack, Damascus has only criticized the West for not doing more to stop the terrorists. It has not launched its own counterstrike. Assad’s troops are overstretched as it is. Major gains against other rebel factions have increased Assad’s territory in the northwest, but keeping supply lines open means engaging the military. And cities must be defended. It all requires troops.
Making matters worse, those are the same troops who have been fighting a bloody civil war for years. There is little wonder that they were beaten out of Palmyra. After so many years, men can become war-weary.
All this combines to put Assad in what appears to be a precarious situation. If a counterstrike is launched, Assad risks losing gains made in the northwest. A troop deployment to Palmyra would undoubtedly mean taking from another front. But if nothing is done, there is little to stop the Islamic State arriving at the walls of Damascus.
Iran Takes a Hit
It wasn’t only Assad who received a decisive blow at Palmyra’s fall. Iran also took a major hit. With 50 percent of Syria in Islamic State hands, Assad’s position looks precarious, which is very bad news for Iran.
Tehran’s greatest asset in the Middle East is the government of Bashar Assad. Over the course of the civil war, the brutal regime has been held in place by the sponsorship of Iran. Iran wants to see a Shiite-allied government maintained within Syria. It has supplied countless weapons and stockpiles of relief to ensure this. But the latest victory for the Islamic State is exposing Assad’s vulnerability.
There is a stark difference between the fall of Ramadi and the fall of Palmyra: Ramadi can be retaken, but Assad cannot.
But in Syria, Assad is being undermined. Iran has invested heavily to ensure it maintains control. To see Assad fall would be a major setback in Iran’s Middle East ambitions. Assad’s removal would leave Iran’s Hezbollah isolated in Lebanon and no doubt facing the Islamic State. Iran would be without its key ally in the Middle East. A major link in Iran’s “Shia Crescent” would be missing.
If Iran wants to hold sway over Syria, it can’t afford to allow the Islamic State to oust the president.
What Iran Can Do
Iran is no doubt weighing its options in Syria now. Sending more weapons is unlikely to work. Iraqi forces are proving that. They are armed with American tech and still can’t win. Hezbollah is another option. The terrorist group has been an effective aid to Assad in the past. But Hezbollah is tied up in the northwest battling other rebel factions such as the al-Nusra Front. To take it away to fight the Islamic State would only lead to more pressure on Assad from other rebel groups. What Iran needs is a breakthrough in Iraq.
The Islamic State has held northern Iraq for too long. Controlling the oil fields has brought major wealth. The money and victories in the face of U.S. and Iraqi efforts help maintain a steady flow of recruits. While Islamic State origins are in Syria, their lifeblood comes from Iraq. Before coming to Iraq, the group was just another rebel faction. If Iran wants it to be that way again, then the terrorists must be driven out of Iraq.
This is clearly Iran’s most viable solution, and it simultaneously plays into Iran’s strategies for Iraq. There is already a large Iranian presence in Iraq thanks to the Islamic State. Taking the fight directly to the terrorists could be a win-win for Tehran. It could mean the destruction of the group, but it also could lead to a far more powerful presence in the region for Tehran.
But defeating the Islamic State is no small task. The longer the Islamic State remains entrenched, the harder it will be to remove. Add to this Assad’s shaky standing, and Iran is clearly short on time.
Iran can’t afford to let the Islamic State war carry on much longer. Iran can outlast the terrorists, but its allies in Syria cannot. The fall of Palmyra could be a serious turning point in the war. The Islamic State showed it is ready and willing to take the fight to Assad and thereby Iran. Watch Tehran respond. It is not going to sit back and let its decade-long plans be thwarted by a band of terrorists. Trumpet readers know too well that it is Iran—not a small extremist group called the Islamic State—that is the real king of the Middle East. And there is no room for two kings. Much like Palmyra, the region can only handle one ruler at a time.