Palmyra handed to IS 'lock, stock and barrel'

Palmyra handed to IS 'lock, stock and barrel'
While regime forces and Russian firepower was concentrated on a rebel enclave in Aleppo, the Islamic State group walked into Palmyra capturing a city steeped in history.
5 min read
12 December, 2016
Palmyra was recaptured by regime forces in May [AFP]

With the fall of the Syrian city of Palmyra to the Islamic State group this weekend, the nearby joint regime-Russian operated Tiyas air base (better known as T4) looks set to meet a similar fate.

Heavy fighting has reportedly taken place around the perimeter between regime and IS fighters overnight. 

Analysts said there were signs that war planes and helicopters stationed at the base were evacuated in anticipation of its capture by the jihadi force.

"IS forces continue their advance towards the T4 airbase, west of Palmyra, while attacking several sites and hills in its vicinity," the militant-linked Amaq news agency reported.

In the crosshairs

Analysts confirmed that T4 is the next target for IS militants, still on a roll from its recent victory in Palmyra.

"All aircraft have been evacuated from T4 so it could probably fall since the Assad coalition has Shayrat anyway," said Kirill Mikhailov, a Conflict Intelligence Team Contributor.

Russian helicopters flew over T4 on Monday, likely from the Shayrat airbase in east Homs, where the few remaining Mig-23 regime and Russian aircraft headed to.

"There are certainly helicopters at Shayrat and probably until recently there were at T4, while the land component most likely left for Aleppo some time ago," he added. 

The Russian advisers based in Palmyra were also evacuated "well ahead" of the IS attack over the weekend, sources said.

The recapture of Palmyra in May by regime forces - backed by Russian war planes and advisers - was supposed to herald a turning point in the war against IS in Syria.

It allowed Damascus to turn back IS advances in Homs and help secure the gas fields in the area, while protecting the ancient sites in the city - much to the world's relief. 

It also proved a massive publicity boost for the regime and Russia that had come under criticism for its lack of fight against IS.

To celebrate Palmyra's recapture, Russia flew in an orchestra for a classical music concert at the amphitheatre to announce the strengthening of the axis between Moscow and Damascus.

Palmyra's security was placed in Damascus' hands, but the area was soon neglected as overstretched regime forces were concentrated in other areas in Syria.

Mikhailov said Assad's withdrawal of troops from east Homs to Aleppo - where most of the regime's most effective troops, surveillance and attack aircraft were concentrated - was the main reason for Palmyra's fall.

With few troops to guard Palmyra, the open plains of Homs - prime conditions for IS fighters to advance - were left open allowing for the jigadi force to thunder through and capture - or disrupt - gas and oil field supplies in the vicinity.

Meanwhile, security was so weak that the T4 base was left open to attack which saw the destruction of helicopters and war planes either by saboteurs or a missile attack. They were soon withdrawn with just a skeleton crew left at the site.

Holding fort

A Russian source said bad weather conditions prevented Russian war planes from engaging effectively against IS during the fight over the weekend, but Damascus must take ultimate responsibility for Palmyra's fall.

IS militants showed off the arsenal left behind and captured by regime forces, including tanks and heavy weapons.

Regime supporters said this showed the complete disorder in the army's retreat with none of the equipment destroyed or disabled as is standard practice in an orderly withdrawal.

"I have to say I am surprised to see this happen, the IS offensive never stopped and were ongoing throughout the summer and autumn. I can't imagine that they would totally miss the dynamic on the ground," the source said, who wished to remain unnamed due to the nature of his job. 

"I think that they relied too much on the Syrians to guard Palmyra."

What the fall of Palmyra suggests is that the regime forces are not able to hold on to territory outside the main urban centres of Syria.

This leaves huge tracts of countryside vulnerable to attack or raids by IS or rebel forces.

The regime's militia-led, Russian-backed offensive in Aleppo has sapped manpower elsewhere in the country, including Palmyra, which has allowed IS to take advantage. 

Yet this in itself highlights the strengthening relationship between Russia and Syria, he said. Its fall has not proven to be too much of a concern for policy makers in Moscow or Damascus, he added.

"I think the retaking of Aleppo now confirms how strong the ties are. Palmyra will be, relatively, easy to retake so Aleppo is the priority right now."

With IS unable to launch offensives north of Raqqa due to a strong rebel and seperate Kurdish presence, it has allowed the group to concentrate its fighters on east Homs which lies to the south of the group's self-declared capital.

"The Palmyra incident is significant because it shows that IS fighters are migrating across this vast space from Mosul and Raqqa to the south," said the source.

"They feel pressure from the north and are no longer holed up in Raqqa, so they are looking for other options." 

For many in the opposition, Pamyra's capture has highlighted a duplicity in Russian and Syrian regime's claims that their priorities are to fight "terrorism". 

Many in the opposition believe that the regime's withdrawal was strategic: the world would once again focused its attention on Palmyra's ruins being destroyed by IS, while the brutal bombardment of Aleppo goes on.

This sense of abandonment, frustration and despair that many Syrians feel could be the seeds of future radicalisation, which gave rise to the likes of IS in 2014.
What is clear is that while regime firepower was directed on a shrinking rebel enclave in Aleppo, one of Syria's most brutal forces were handed the keys to a city of thousands, priceless artefacts, gas fields, and now a prized air base.