By William Watkins
When Syrian armed forces recaptured the ancient desert city of Palmyra from the Islamic State jihadist movement in March, the world may have seen a turning point in the five-year-old war.
Whether or not it was a watershed, important lessons can be drawn.
The battle for the strategically situated city was not easy. The Syrian army engaged in intense close-quarters fighting as it pushed forward, and it needed the support of Russian airstrikes and special forces. Gunfire could still be heard in the outskirts of Palmyra as Syrian authorities announced the recapture of the city.
Islamic State (IS) forces fought hard before retreating. Government troops’ new-found resolve contrasted with their failed offensive to retake the city last July.
Their victory followed territorial gains in the north, achieved with the help of Russian planes and military expertise, and a ceasefire with almost all of the other rebel groups. All this has breathed new life into the battered Syrian regime which only a year ago was on the ropes.
IS forces threatened the main road linking Damascus to the north.
A year ago, rebel forces and the al Qaeda-linked Nusra Front had stormed Idlib, roughly half way between the country’s biggest city Aleppo and Latakia, its principal seaport and fief of the family of President Bashar al Assad.
Meanwhile, IS forces had launched an offensive from the eastern region bordering Iraq into central Syria. By August, they had taken Palmyra and Qaratayn. They eventually pushed as far west as Mahin, close to the road linking the capital Damascus to the country’s third largest city, Homs.
Last July, Assad admitted that some areas of the country had to be given up so that more important areas could be defended.
But then the situation on the ground changed radically. Kurdish forces, aided by U.S.-led coalition airstrikes, clawed back territory from Islamic State. Russians bombed the rebels, helping government forces to retake many areas around Aleppo.
The government offensives, backed by Lebanese Hezbollah forces, Iranian-supplied Shiite militias and Syrian volunteer militias, forced rebels into accepting a ceasefire.
With the north quiet, the government forces moved east, attacking IS positions and culminating in the retaking of Palmyra and Qaratayn.
Islamic State can only be defeated by ground forces.
In Palmyra, the government has accomplished two important goals. It has denied Islamic State the capability to attack further westwards towards Homs. And it has gained an important staging ground for future attacks against remaining IS-held areas: Raqqa in the north and Deir-Ez-Zour in the east.
These two cities are, respectively, the sixth and seventh largest in Syria.
The taking of Palmyra was also important because it proved that Islamic State could be decisively defeated in battle. And that ground forces are the way to defeat it.
Airstrikes are more icing than cake. In World War Two, the Axis nations survived years of unimaginable bombardment. Islamic State does not have manufacturing or an infrastructure, let alone concentrated armies, to target.
But we must remind ourselves that although Islamic State can be defeated in Syria, the group and its ideology of militant jihadism are global problems that can be defeated only by ground forces.
The enemies of Islamic State cannot rely solely on the dictators of those countries where the radical movement is present, for the dictators are a major source of discontent that has fueled support for jihadism.
For Islamic State and other jihadist groups to be defeated, it will take a major undertaking on the part of all nations involved: Ground forces will have to be deployed, and the sources of jihadism — discontent, corruption, religious fanaticism — will have to be addressed across the world.
Victory strengthens the Army’s place in Syria’s political future.
Palmyra proved that the Syrian Army is both durable and brutal. It cannot be denied a place in a new political dispensation in Syria. It should not be forgotten that many IS commanders are battle-hardened generals from Saddam Hussein’s former army, which was disbanded by U.S. forces that invaded and occupied Iraq in 2003.
We must keep in mind the immediate consequences of Palmyra. The city’s fall provides Assad with one more bargaining chip for peace talks.
This victory does not ensure Assad’s survival: numerous other factors, such as rebel cooperation, foreign intervention and internal strife all threaten his regime and are not immediately altered by the battle for Palmyra.
But the city’s fall showed the regime is far from being defeated and willing to fight even after five years of war.
William Watkins was born in the United States and grew up in the greater Houston area. His father bought several photographic histories of World War Two, which sparked his interest in history. He then became interested in war and geopolitics, leading to his current interest in the Middle East. He is finishing his high school studies King’s Academy in Jordan, and will attend Bates College in the United States in the fall.