The fall of Palmyra to ISIS over the weekend, months after the ancient city was retaken by Syrian forces and their allies, has blown the lid off the misconception that the jihadist group is being defeated, analysts say.
The desert oasis was first captured by ISIS in May 2015. Militants blew up the historic 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and publicly executed anyone who deviated from their restrictive worldview. Almost exactly a year later, forces led by the Syrian regime, including Russia and Hezbollah, retook the UNESCO World Heritage site. The victory for the regime was followed by a triumphant concert, organized by Moscow, in the amphitheater of the city’s Roman ruins.
However on Sunday, Palmyra returned to the hands of ISIS after a weeklong offensive — showing it remains a formidable fighting force despite being on retreat, according to Charlie Winter, a senior research fellow and specialist on ISIS at the The International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence in London.
Military and political pressure on the group’s heartlands in Iraq, Syria and Libya have withered the numbers of fighters, Winter says, but not its potency. “[ISIS] has been fighting this war for many years now,” he says. “It is replenishing its ranks by conscription and bringing in children and I think it is an organization that is more resilient than some reports suggest.”
The militant group has been preparing for an incursion of this sort for a number of months; in November, an unnamed head of ISIS’s war command gave an interview for ISIS newspaper Al-Naba, telling followers to prepare for more raids, “which are geared towards buoying the morale of supporters and showing that the group is still a potent force” Winter says.
The ISIS retaking of Palmyra underlies a key deficiency of the Syrian regime: Assad’s overstretched forces have been eroded by a multi-fronted civil war that has lasted nearly six years. To help make inroads in ISIS or rebel-held territories, Assad has compensated by indiscriminate air and artillery attacks as well as a reliance on Iranian-backed militias and Russian air support.
The loss of Palmyra suggests that the regime might have also withdrawn resources in the city to help facilitate the attack on Aleppo. “The primary lesson…it that while they have a lot of military momentum in Syria’s northwest, primarily Aleppo, the fact they dedicated such resources leaves them vulnerable elsewhere,” says Noah Bonsey, International Crisis Group senior analyst for Syria. “Even with all the Russian and Iranian support, and all the foreign fighters that have joined their side, the regime still struggles to gain additional territory in opposition strongholds while maintaining what they already have.”
There’s a lesson here for the Trump administration, as it ponders a new approach in the region — the Assad regime appears to be a poor partner for the West to fight jihadis, whatever Russia may say to the contrary. “Their approach of basically bombing people into submission, civilians and armed men alike, it is not something most western analysts would not view as an effective way to deal with insurgent problem,” Bonsey says. The regime lacks the capacity to fully eradicate jihadists, he adds, relying on punishing tactics that include bombings and foreign sectarian militias, tools that lead the mass displacement of people—many of which end up as refugees heading to Europe—and the radicalization of locals.
Western analysts agree that eliminating ISIS is a long way off— even if the regime does regain Palmyra for the second time and recaptures all of its territory in the country. According to a recent study by the United States Institute of Peace, dislodging them from their territory will not defang the allure of jihadist ideology, which allowed groups like ISIS to gain traction in the first place.
In order to solve the geopolitical Rubik’s cube that is Syria and curb ISIS’s appeal, a new level of strategic thinking and engagement is needed from Western powers— something that seems far off, analysts say. “I don’t think there is any point in talking about a post-ISIS world,” Winter says.