Palmyra recapture a boost for IS jihadists

IS ravaged ancient ruins during the 10 months it held Palmyra from March 2015 to May 2016

PALMYRA - The Kremlin on Monday deplored the lack of cooperation with the United States in Palmyra after Islamic State jihadists re-entered the ancient Syrian city at the weekend.
"We regret that we have yet to completely neutralise their offensive," Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said of the fighters return to the fabled city after an eight-month absence.
"We also regret that there still is a lack of coordinated action and real cooperation with other states -- with the United States first and foremost -- that do not want to cooperate, and this cooperation could allow us to avoid such attacks by terrorists."
Peskov added that jihadists from neighbouring Iraq, where a Western coalition is supporting the Iraqi military's efforts to retake the city of Mosul from IS, had been flooding into Syria.
The Islamic State jihadist group began an assault on government positions in Homs province, where the famed ancient city of Palmyra is located, last week.
It quickly overran army checkpoints and seized oil and gas fields until it reached the city's edge.
The jihadists briefly entered Palmyra on Saturday before being forced to withdraw after government ally Russia launched intense air strikes.
Russia's defence ministry said Sunday that its war planes had carried out more than 60 overnight strikes on Palmyra, claiming to have "thwarted all terrorist attacks" on the city.
But despite the raids and the arrival of Syrian army reinforcements, IS seized control of the city hours later, a monitoring group and the jihadist-linked Amaq news agency said.
Experts said several factors explained IS's shock recapture of the city, including its isolated location in the eastern desert of Homs province, where the group was able to overrun territory quickly.
"The geography of the city, which is surrounded by mountains, makes it very difficult to defend," said Romain Caillet, an expert on jihadist groups.
Government and Russian forces, on the offensive elsewhere in Syria, may also have been vulnerable to a surprise attack, a favoured IS tactic.
"One of the key things IS is very good at is launching surprise attacks from desert positions," said Charlie Winter, a senior fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation and Political Violence at Kings College London.
"They have a high level of operational security so they are able to essentially launch shock attacks and gain lots of ground."
- Why is Palmyra important? -
Despite its relatively small size, Palmyra is considered symbolically important and of international interest because of its ancient ruins, which are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
IS ravaged the ruins during the 10 months it held Palmyra from March 2015 to May 2016, systematically blowing up ancient temples in attacks that provoked worldwide horror.
Syrian troops backed by Russian air strikes and special forces on the ground recaptured the UNESCO world heritage site from IS fighters in March, delivering a major propaganda coup for both Damascus and Moscow.
Russian forces played a key role in Palmyra's capture, which Moscow celebrated by flying in Russian musicians to perform a classical concert in the city's ancient theatre, where IS had staged mass executions of government troops.
IS's win in Palmyra at the weekend comes as the jihadist group faces major offensives against its two most important bastions -- Syria's Raqa city and Iraq's Mosul.
In both cities, the group has been forced to issue daily denials about its losses, so the Palmyra advance gives it a chance to change the narrative, Winter said.
"It really feeds their ability to engage in a triumphalist propaganda frenzy... They want to show that they are still a potent military actor," he said.
- What will IS do now? -
The group's fighters have continued to push forward, advancing Monday towards Al-Qaryatain, a village that the jihadists also ravaged during an eight-month rule.
But they have come under heavy Russian air strikes, and it was unclear how long they could hold on to the territory they have captured in recent days.
Winter said Russia and Damascus were likely to push hard to force IS out of Palmyra, "because it is a symbolically potent site".
But with key battles raging elsewhere, mainly government operations to recapture rebel east Aleppo, a major push to expel IS could be delayed until more resources are available.
Caillet said IS would continue pushing to take additional territory.
"It's a mistake to think that they will stop at local objectives, they will continue to the maximum of their abilities, even if their operations... sometimes appear irrational," he said.
"With their capture of Palmyra, despite Russian bombardment, jihadist morale has been boosted for at least another six months," he added.
Russia has carried out a bombing campaign in Syria in support of its long-standing President Bashar al-Assad since September 2015.
Syrian regime forces are currently focused on a major offensive fighting other insurgent groups in the second city of Aleppo that has seen them seize back most of the rebel-held stronghold.
The deadly war in Syria has killed more than 300,000 people since it started in March 2011 with a wave of anti-government protests.