The retaking of the historic Syrian city of Palmyra was a significant strategic gain for Russia, but it remains to be seen whether the Kremlin will be able to maintain its advantageous position in any future negotiations over the future of Syria.

Ancient Palmyra after the city's liberation from terrorists. Photo: Ria Novosti

On Mar. 28, the Syrian army backed by its allies – Lebanese Hezbollah and Russian air forces – retook the most iconic battleground of the Syrian civil war – the ancient city of Palmyra – from the hands of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS). This is the biggest defeat of the terrorist organization since it formed a caliphate in 2014, marking the culmination of a three-week push by the Syrian army to retake the city.

Losing Palmyra is certainly a symbol of the weakness of the ISIS regime. But it also signifies a lot for Russia, for the West and for the future of the Syrian peace process. It highlights the attempts to legitimize Syrian President Bashar al-Assad regime that have been undertaken by Russia, it underscores the evolving binary nature of the complicated Syrian civil war, and it highlights that without Russian air power, Assad is incapable of any real military gains.

It also highlights that the tide of the Syrian civil war has turned against ISIS, and it solidifies the resigned acceptance among a certain section of realist policymakers, as well as high-level Western politicians, that Assad is perhaps the lesser of the two evils. It also implies that there will be more terrorist attacks in the West, unless the Syrian war ends and the peace process is consolidated.

What does the retaking of Palmyra mean for Russia?

It is gratifying to see Palmyra back in the hands of the Syrian regime. One of the greatest heritage sites on the entire globe was systematically being destroyed by an ultraviolent apocalyptic terrorist group, who used it for abhorrent purposes in the name of a narrow interpretation of a particular religion. ISIS even used the world-renowned amphitheater for live burning of dissidents and opponents. The renowned Khaled Asaad, archeologist and scholar of the Palmyra museum, a Muslim himself, was beheaded for the crime of saving archeological treasures. The retaking of Palmyra therefore should be welcomed by everyone, just for the simple fact that the city is a treasure of human history that should be preserved.

The important point here is Russian military action. For all the talk of Russia withdrawing from Syria, it is now clear that the main component of the Russian air force is still in Syria, and still fully operational on a daily basis. The Russian air force was vital in the retaking of the city, and showed tremendous interoperability with both Syrian forces as well as Lebanese militias. It also highlighted the advanced role of Russian Special Forces in tactical battles. But the symbolism of this operation goes beyond a traditional military narrative.

It is an accepted fact that the Assad regime was somehow under the impression that it could manage to retake the entire country and manage to win this civil war outright. However, that is logically impossible, for three reasons.

Firstly, the majority of Syrians are opposed to Assad. Secondly, he lost complete credibility due to his brutal actions, and thirdly, he simply lacks the military power to turn that idea into reality. It is also evident that ever since the last G20 meeting, Moscow and Washington were busy forming a path forward, and that includes significant planning for a post-Assad scenario. It is therefore quite possible that Assad is not really happy that Moscow was preparing an exit plan for him, and he still thinks of ruling over the entire country, and not the rump Alawite corner of the country that he has effective control over.

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Moscow clearly, with the declaration of a withdrawal and subsequent air cover for Assad forces, tried to hammer this point home to the Syrian regime that without Russian forces Assad still might suffer the fate of Muammar Gaddafi, whose government was overthrown in Libya in 2011. The aim of Moscow is evidently to bring a more subdued Assad to the negotiation table, an Assad who knows his place and acts accordingly.

Palmyra highlights the differences in Russian and U.S. strategies

The military aspect that was evident in the retaking of Palmyra was that, compared to Iraqi forces trained and supported by American forces, Assad’s army still remains a stronger and more capable force. This could be for various reasons. Firstly, Assad’s army is more focused on its own survival, and being a sectarian minority, faces a greater danger of mass annihilation if Assad loses.

Secondly, Assad’s army is more compatible with Russian forces and operating tactics than the Iraqis are with the Americans. Thirdly, Iraqi forces proved once again during their ongoing Mosul operations, that they lack the esprit de corps, are extremely low on morale and lack the unit coherence and discipline needed to win wars. To sum up, the horse on which Russia is betting is stronger than the American horse, not that it is a fault of the West.

That might give Russia more leverage in any upcoming negotiations. Also, it might be the difference in the way of waging war. Quite simply, war as conducted by Russia and the United States is quite different. The Russian military doctrine, as noted above, is simple compared to the American one, and is not limited by a lot of checks and balances. In military parlance, if there is a sniper in a building, Russia tends to level the entire building. The operational difference is evident in the way Kobane (in northern Syria, near the Turkish border) and Palmyra were liberated. While in Kobane, there were tactical targeted bombings, and a long wait for the civilians to get out of the war zone, Palmyra was comparatively much faster.

As argued before, Russia and the U.S. are not facing a new Cold war, not by any measurable index. It is just another great power rivalry in different segregated spheres of geopolitics. President Barack Obama’s administration will probably go down in history as one that was the most isolationist in recent American history – a feat that will not be repeated by the next president (whether he or she is a Democrat or a Republican). All the remaining U.S. presidential candidates appear to be more hawkish about their Russia policy.

But there are structural limitations imposed on both Moscow and Washington, and we can now see that, on various levels, cooperation between Russia and the U.S. has only increased. There were already symbolic gestures from the American side, and the Obama administration repeatedly has shown inclination to leave the Syrian burden on the Russians.  That was evident even during the Mosul and Palmyra operations.

To conclude, here are the two things Russian gained from the retaking of Palmyra. First, it proved that Moscow is a power broker. Even when Russia is openly supportive of Assad, it proved to both Assad and the West that without Russia, neither can achieve their objective. This essentially guaranteed Putin a say in the post-Assad future of Syria, which was always the motivation for this intervention.

Secondly, Russia snatched the narrative of being the primary force against ISIS, as evident from top-level Western politicians grudgingly warming up to Moscow’s role in Syria. Whether Russia can maintain this advantageous position, however, will only depend on how much it can make Assad follow its lead in upcoming negotiations. There won’t be any peace with Assad being present. Moscow should realize that, especially if it wants to convert recent military gains to a more stable and final diplomatic solution for Syria’s future.

The opinion of the author may not necessarily reflect the position of Russia Direct or its staff.