To avoid losing any positive momentum in the Syrian conflict, Russia may be forced to confront the military prospect of putting boots on the ground.

A general view of the ancient ruins of the city of Palmyra. Photo: AP

On Dec. 11, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Greater Syria (ISIS) retook the ancient city of Palmyra, which was liberated in March 2016 by the Syrian army with the support of Russian aviation. The entire ISIS operation took about three days and nights, while Russian and Syrian troops liberated Palmyra in about 45 days.

At that time, Palmyra became the symbol of the Russian victories in Syria. Before the liberation of the city, the terrorists conducted mass executions amidst the historic ruins of Palmyra. Thousands of new Islamist newcomers from Central Asia and Caucasus arrived, having been trained at ISIS military bases.

After the liberation, prominent Russian musician Valery Gergiev performed in the city’s ancient theater with the music program “Praying For Palmyra” that was broadcast globally. Definitely, it was a great success for Russia’s foreign policy.

However, the retaking of Palmyra by ISIS sullied Russia’s image in the world in no time. Today some Russian and foreign media are reporting that Russia’s mercenaries contributed to the liberation of Palmyra, with the Syrian army playing the secondary role. However, in April, Russian soldiers left the ancient city, having left it to the guardianship of the Syrian army, which failed to withstand the ISIS attack.      

Partly, it might have happened because the Syrian army and its allies, including Iranian mercenaries, focused their efforts on the seizure of Aleppo. Meanwhile, ISIS was faced with tough pressure from the U.S.-led anti-terrorist coalition from three directions.

Also read: "What did Russia gain from the retaking of Palmyra in Syria?"

First, near Mosul, American, Iraqi and Kurdish forces attacked the Islamic State. Second, near the city of Al-Bab, Turkish troops and their allies from the Free Syrian Army struck ISIS. And, finally, supported by the Pentagon, the Democratic Syrian Forces that bring together Kurds and Arabs fought terrorists in the city of Raqqa, which is considered to be the capital of ISIS.

The Islamic State needed a big victory to maintain its image among the terrorists and to attract attention from all over the world. According to current speculation, Mosul now is not the best place where the Islamic State can win positive publicity, partly because the move by the U.S.-led anti-terrorism international coalition is in full swing. At the same, the Kurdish and Turkish troops seized several cities and retook huge swaths of territories, which previously belonged to ISIS. However, by re-capturing Palmyra, the Islamic State restored the balanced.

The problem is that the ancient city of Palmyra was not properly defended militarily; and, thus, it was very vulnerable. That’s why the terrorists focused their forces in this direction. Probably, the supporters of the Islamic State will broadcast several televised executions in the ancient city to strengthen their positions and create more publicity. Russian and Syrian soldiers, taken prisoners, will become the first victims.          

For the U.S. and its allies, the retaking of Palmyra by ISIS might have strategic implications. After all, the West accuses the Syrian regime of fighting not with terrorists, but with the moderate democratic opposition. Moreover, some even believe that the Syrian president is collaborating with ISIS on oil trade deals.  

Palmyra was a much-touted asset in the hands of Moscow and official Damascus. Today any accusations from the U.S. that Russia and Syria failed will be very difficult to counter. The West might raise the question about overthrowing Syrian President Bashar Assad once again. Moreover, it might offer to impose more sanctions on Russia for its support of the Syrian regime.

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Unfortunately, the international community will see the Kremlin as a loser. Regardless of President Vladimir Putin’s announcement about Russia’s withdrawal from Syria in March 2016, Europe and the U.S. see Russia as the key stakeholder in the Syrian conflict. That’s why Russia’s losses or victories might have an impact on its status of a great power (which is how Moscow prefers to see itself).  

Earlier, Putin said that Assad’s army was the only effective power that could withstand the terrorists. However, the military successes of Turkish and Kurdish troops and the retreat of the Syrian forces from Palmyra put Putin’s words into question.

The situation is aggravated by the fact that Moscow started its Syrian campaign to defeat ISIS, first and foremost, and reclaim its status as a great power. Yet approximately within a year, several groups of terrorists defeated the troops of Moscow’s allies and obtained access to military warehouses, armor, equipment and weapons. Russia can expect to be held accountable for what is going on in Syria now.      

All victories and losses of Damascus are, first and foremost, the victories and losses of Moscow. And now it remains to be seen how Russia will deal with the problem if it doesn’t even have boots on the ground in Syria. Neither Syrians nor their Iranian allies will fight for Russia in Palmyra. However, it doesn’t mean that they won’t try to retake the ancient city (they will). However, the question is who will attempt to liberate Palmyra if the majority of the Syrian army is dealing with Aleppo now.     

The problem is possible to resolve provided the Kremlin will understand all its mistakes for the previous year, come up with a new strategy and set a new goal for Russia’s participation in the Syrian campaign. One joins a war only to win. And Russia’s politicians and military failed to understand this elementary truth. Airstrikes might be important to contribute to the victory; however, only boots on the ground are the most effective way of conducting effective military operations.

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If Russia doesn’t see the Syrian army as trustworthy anymore, it would better to send its own troops to Syria (which is very expensive and may undermine the approval rankings of the authorities within the country) or create its own effective army consisting of locals. Given the fact that many Syrian officers prefer to be under the Russian command, it is not impossible at all.

After all, this is the path the Americans chose: They created the Democratic Syrian army that comprises about 40,000 Kurds and other Arab tribes. And this army is pretty successful in fighting against ISIS in the cities of Raqqa and Manbij. In addition, Russia could involve private military companies to provide a new army with military instructors, snipers and combat engineers. And, again, the American experience could be very helpful in this regard. Thanks to the involvement of private military companies, Washington is easily bypassing congressional restrictions on deploying its army in transnational conflicts.

However, Russia doesn’t seem to be ready to assume responsibility for what is going on in Syria. And it is not a good sign in terms of Moscow’s reputation. Previously, ordinary Syrians welcomed Russian troops with admiration and enthusiasm, hoping that Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict would end the war.

Yet today many of them are disappointed. Now they are inclined to believe that Russia is just another stakeholder in the conflict with its own interests – just like official Damascus or the Americans, Turks, Kurds, Hezbollah, ISIS and other military forces.  But this multifaceted confrontation seems to be far from over.

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