Syrian state media this week broadcast images of pro-government troops advancing on the ancient ruins of Palmyra, located in a desert oasis northeast of Damascus.
Forces loyal to the government are now said to have recaptured major parts of the historic city amid heavy clashes with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL, also known as ISIS) group, which took control of the area in May 2015.
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Palmyra is located on a strategic thoroughfare linking Damascus with Deir Az Zor in eastern Syria, near the Iraqi border. Control of the city would provide pro-government forces with a foothold in central Syria to extend control towards the Iraqi border.
But victory at Palmyra would also represent a symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad and his Russian backers, with talks in Geneva set to resume in early April.
Wrestling control of the ancient city from ISIL could strengthen the Syrian government’s perceived credibility in the eyes of the international community, not only as a force of moderation in Syria, but as one capable of collaborating with anti-ISIL coalition forces, analysts say.
“Strategically, the loss of Palmyra would not be a game-changer for the Islamic State,” Aymen Jawad al-Tamimi, a fellow at the Middle East Forum think-tank, told Al Jazeera. “In the larger picture, its loss may lead ISIL to try to reinforce fighting fronts in the Homs desert to prevent any further regime advances. Palmyra is more important for the regime, symbolically, to present itself as the defender of civilisation against barbarism.”
Imad Salamey, a political science professor at the Lebanese American University, noted that the Syrian government faces greater challenges to its authority and survival on other fronts.
“Deraa, Aleppo and Damascus are more strategically important. But Palmyra is extremely relevant for propaganda,” Salamey told Al Jazeera.
Since the outbreak of Syria’s war in 2011, state media has systematically portrayed the Syrian government as the defender of Syria’s religious and cultural heritage, while labelling opposition groups as “terrorists”. International watchdogs, meanwhile, have found the Syrian government to be responsible for the most civilian deaths in the conflict.
Nadim Shehadi, the director of the Fares Center for Eastern Mediterranean Studies at Tufts University, believes the international community has become “selective” when processing such information, especially following the emergence of ISIL as a force capable of striking enemies not only in Syria and Iraq, but in Europe as well.
“The battle of narratives has been won by the regime and its allies,” Shehadi told Al Jazeera. “The regime gained legitimacy over Palmyra when ISIL took it over, because ISIL is illegitimate in the eyes of the world, so the regime becomes the legitimate custodian.”
without a fight, and now they are bombing it. The regime and ISIL are both enemies.”]
As images of Syrian government troops, standing and smiling beside road signs outside Palmyra, emerged on Thursday, UNESCO’s director-general, Irina Bokova, welcomed their arrival, stating that under ISIL’s control, the ancient city and heritage site had become “a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East”.
Since taking control of Palmyra a year ago, ISIL fighters have destroyed a number of the ancient city’s prized monuments and conducted executions in its Roman amphitheatre.
Although Russian troops began to withdraw from Syria earlier this month, government advances on Palmyra have been facilitated by sorties carried out by Russian aircraft. The Russian Defence Ministry stated on Thursday that Moscow had carried out 146 strikes on Palmyra in the previous four days. At least one Russian special forces soldier was reportedly killed.
Anna Borschevskaya, an expert on Russian foreign policy towards the Middle East at the Washington Institute, said Moscow’s involvement in Palmyra supported President Vladimir Putin’s projected narrative on Russia’s role in Syria.
“It fits into the narrative that Russia’s intervention is critical to fighting global terrorism in support of what he calls the legitimate government of Assad,” Borschevskaya said.
But for many pro-opposition figures, the potential PR victory for the Syrian government in Palmyra is a bitter pill.
“When ISIL took control of Palmyra, government troops fled without a fight. They delivered the city to ISIL, like a form of theatre,” Hisham Marwah, former vice-president of the opposition Syrian National Council, told Al Jazeera. “Now Assad can claim that he is liberating the city and saving culture.”
Mohammad Al-Khateb, a native of Palmyra and founding member of the opposition-aligned activist group, the Palmyra Revolutionary Coordination Council, says recent Russian air strikes on Palmyra have killed at least 20 civilians and damaged the city’s famed archaeological ruins.
Before the outbreak of Syria’s war, Palmyra had a population of 70,000. This figure is said to have dwindled to 15,000 under ISIL’s rule. According to recent media reports, in anticipation of the battle, ISIL called on all civilians still living in Palmyra to leave. But Khateb says some people remain trapped.
“The bombing campaigns have been indiscriminate; some people have not been able to leave. First, the regime withdrew without a fight, and now they are bombing it,” Khateb told Al Jazeera. “The regime and ISIL are both enemies [of the people of Palmyra].”