Palmyra is a major turning point in Syria’s Civil War
The fall of Palmyra marks a big win in the Syrian state’s fight against ISIL.
Bashar al-Assad had said for years to both Syrians and the international community that only his regime could prevent the spectre of ISIL taking over Syria.
For the first time he has acted to deal with this threat. Damascus finally invested in amassing enough military forces to defeat ISIL in a battle for territory. Also, even with the withdrawal of Russian forces from the war, Moscow’s residual airpower in Syria can still sustain the Assad regime’s momentum on the battlefield.
The Syrian state’s recent victory against ISIL in Palmyra represents a major shift not only in the war against ISIL, but also in the trajectory of the nation’s five-year civil war.
Fluctuating Syrian and Iraqi frontlines
Syria’s victory in Palmyra comes just three months after Iraq recovered Ramadi from ISIL.
Both Ramadi and Palmyra had fallen during ISIL’s May 2015 offensive, proving then that ISIL could wage two simultaneous military campaigns across distant frontlines. The battles for Ramadi and Palmyra have nullified ISIL’s gains.
READ MORE: How Iraq recaptured Ramadi and why it matters
These victories are significant given that before it was only the sub-state militias that defeated ISIL. Before it captured Ramadi, ISIL had lost Tikrit in a battle with Iraq’s Shia militias.
In the summer of 2015, it was the militia of Syrian Kurds which expelled ISIL from Tel Abyad, on the border with Turkey, followed by its victory in Sinjar, Iraq, in November.
In both Iraq and Syria, it was these militias, benefiting from US air support, which defeated ISIL in battle.
However, the victory in Ramadi, followed by Palmyra, represents the recent rise of the state military in Iraq and Syria respectively. Both militaries, as national institutions, have defeated ISIL, thus allowing each state to claim victory on behalf of the people.
The ability of the state to claim victory is paramount given how both sides of this conflict have sustained myths about their fighting prowess.
ISIL’s victories in Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015 perpetuated the myth of its military invincibility, essential to recruiting fighters from Iraq, Syria, the greater Middle East, and the West.
ISIL's victories in Ramadi and Palmyra in May 2015 perpetuated the myth of its military invincibility, essential to recruiting fighters from Iraq, Syria, the greater Middle East, and the West.
As of 2016, the Iraqi and Syrian states have reversed ISIL’s gains on the battlefield, undermining its aura of invincibility. Both states have gone on to leverage these victories to perpetuate their own myths, promising their citizens that the military will return a modicum of security to their respective nations.
In the case of Ramadi, the Iraqi state went to great efforts to highlight the role of the official armed forces in the liberation of the city. In reality, the Shia militias still played a supporting role by containing ISIL’s expansion from Ramadi in May 2015, and the US provided significant air support in the final campaign to recapture it.
Nonetheless, the Iraqi government could claim that it was a national victory since it was the Iraqi security forces, a national institution, and not the Shia militias, that dealt the final blow to ISIL on the streets of Ramadi.
In the case of Palmyra, the Syrian government has ostensibly claimed its first national victory against ISIL, even if the victory was achieved with the aid of non-Syrian actors, including Russia, Iran, the Lebanese Hezbollah, and Iraqi and Afghan Shia foreign fighters.
By finally taking on ISIL in Palmyra, Assad can bolster whatever remains of his legitimacy among his own citizens, and can communicate to the international community that he is the only viable bulwark against this terrorist threat, at a time when Europe is still reeling from the attacks in Brussels.
Breaking the Syrian stalemate
The Syrian state’s ability to recover Palmyra at the end of March 2016 is also significant in that it has demonstrated just how fluid the battlefields in the civil war have become over the past couple of months.
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During most of the Syrian civil war, rebel factions could seize territory, but the Syrian state maintained a monopoly on airpower, tanks and heavy artillery, creating a bloody stalemate.
In April 2015, the stalemate was overcome when a good number of the rebel factions cooperated for the first time, and also received anti-tank missiles from foreign sponsors, which contributed to their rapid success in Idlib and Jisr al-Shughur in northern Syria.
For the first time, Bashar al-Assad admitted publicly that the military had suffered setbacks after losing Idlib to the rebels.
After the rebels’ success, the rates of desertion among the Syrian armed forces increased, combined with the military’s lack of morale, as the state grew ever more reliant on Hezbollah and Iran.
Then Palmyra fell to ISIL in May 2015. With those rebel victories, questions emerged as to whether the Syrian regime would even survive.
Marwan Bishara, senior political analyst at Al Jazeera, asked: “Is it truly the beginning of the end for Assad and his decades-old regime?”
The headline of an article in The Guardian asked, “Amid the ruins of Syria, Is Bashar al-Assad now finally facing the end?”
It was a question that Russia most likely pondered around the same time, and which, in hindsight, explains its robust intervention on behalf of the Syrian state.
The US thought Russia’s intervention in Syria would be like its experience in Afghanistan. In fact, it broke the stalemate of the civil war in favour of the Syrian state.
Not even a year has passed since the question of Bashar al-Assad’s survival was raised. Now, his survival is no longer in doubt.
However, this recent victory occurred because the cessation of hostilities with other Syrian rebels freed up enough manpower for the Syrian state to recapture Palmyra. The Syrian state still does not have enough military resources to score an outright victory against both ISIL and the other Syrian rebels in the near term, even with the residual Russian forces remaining.
While Assad has achieved a string of tactical victories, breaking the military stalemate outside Aleppo against the Syrian rebels and in Palmyra against ISIL, breaking the political stalemate between the state and the opposition seems an ever more formidable challenge in the year to come.
Ibrahim al-Marashi is an assistant professor at the Department of History, California State University, San Marcos. He is the co-author of Iraq’s Armed Forces: An Analytical History.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.