"You know I mean look... broadly speaking .... you know... it's not a great choice... an either/or... but... you know..."
That was the response from State Department spokesman Mark Toner when two reporters asked him whether the US was pleased that the Syrian army, backed by Hezbollah ground forces and Russian airstrikes was set to retake the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State.
The lack of enthusiasm for the Russian-backed effort made for an amusing soundbite and might have come as a surprise to the uninitiated. But for those who follow the conflict in Syria it was par for the course in Washington. As recently as last August The Pentagon and CIA were still holding out some hope that rebel forces might manage to oust Assad and that somehow, ISIS and al-Nusra would subsequently be subdued. The worst case scenario would have seen ISIS itself march into Damascus and take control of the country, but that would have been fine too because then the Marines would simply march in and promptly eliminate the group paving the way for Washington and Riyadh to step in and install a puppet government.
Then the entire calculus changed when Russia entered the fray on September 30. From October on, Washington struggled with how to respond to gains made by Hezbollah and Russia. On the one hand, Moscow was hitting ISIS and al-Nusra hard from the air and the US couldn’t very well condemn that without admitting that “the terrorists” serve a purpose in Syria. On the other hand, relentless bombing runs by Russian warplanes paved the way for Hezbollah and other Iran-backed militias to lay waste to the “moderate” rebels that stood between Assad and Aleppo and that, the US said, was “no fair.” Once Aleppo proper (i.e. the city itself) was surrounded, the rebels basically surrendered (that’s not what they’ll say, nor is it the line you’ll get from Washington and Riyadh, but it’s no coincidence that the ceasefire was agreed at the exact same time that the city was surrounded).
And so, with that bit of messy business out of the way, and with the rebels having agreed to lay down their weapons in exchange for Russia’s promise that the air force wouldn't seek to wipe them out entirely, Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah did exactly what we said they would do: turned their sights east towards Palmyra, Deir el-Zour, and Raqqa. Here’s what we said in October:
“Hezbollah and Iranian troops are advancing on Aleppo and Moscow is backing the offensive from the sky which means that the hodgepodge of anti-regime forces that control Syria’s largest city will almost (and we say "almost" because there are no sure things in war) certainly be routed, which would effectively serve to restore the Assad regime in Syria.
After that, the Russian bear and Qasem Soleimani will turn their eyes to the East of the country and at that point, it is game over for ISIS.
Well, we hate to say “we told you so,” but that assessment has proven to be 100% accurate and after a weeks long siege, Bashar al-Assad announced on Sunday that with the help of Russia and Hezbollah, the Syrian army has driven ISIS from Palmyra.
“Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes drove Islamic State fighters from Palmyra on Sunday, ending the group's 10-month reign of terror over a town whose famed 2,000-year-old ruins once drew tens of thousands of visitors each year,” AFP reports. “In comments reported on state TV, President Bashar Assad described the Palmyra operation as a ‘significant achievement’ offering ‘new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy espoused by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.’” Here’s more:
Gen. Ali Mayhoub announced on the station that that the fall of Palmyra "directs a fatal blow to Daesh, undermines the morale of its mercenaries, and ushers in the start of its defeat and retreat," referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. He said it lays the ground for further advances toward Raqqa, the IS group's de facto capital, and Deir el-Zour, an eastern city it largely controls.
Troops in Palmyra are now dismantling explosive booby traps planted by IS, the station reported. State TV and a Britain-based monitoring group later reported that troops captured a military airport to the east.
The advance marks a strategic and symbolic victory for the government, which has sought to portray itself as a bulwark against terrorism. The town was an important juncture on an IS supply line connecting its territory in central and northern Syria to the Anbar province in Iraq, where the group also holds territory.
Unfortunately, ISIS did manage to destroy quite a bit of the city’s cultural heritage, including the Triumphal Archs.
Here’s a rundown of the damage, again from AFP:
- State TV showed the rubble left over from the destruction of the Temple of Bel as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which were still standing. It said a statue of Zenobia, the 3rd century queen who ruled an independent state from Palmyra and figures strongly in Syrian lore, was missing.
- Artefacts inside the city's museum also appeared heavily damaged on state TV.
- A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was shown decapitated.
- The museum's basement appeared to have been dynamited, the hall littered with broken statues.
Of course ISIS also desecrated a The Roman Theatre where last year, city residents were forced to watch as two dozen teenage ISIS trainees carried out a mass execution of captured SAA soldiers.
As Syrian and Iran-backed Shiite forces cleared the city, Vladimir Putin called Bashar al-Assad to congratulate him on the victory. Russia, Putin said, would continue to support the government in its efforts to drive ISIS, al-Nusra, and other jihadist elements from the country.
At last check, Assad hadn't received a congratulatory call from Obama...