December 13, 2016, will live in infamy -- the day the resistance battling Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's forces essentially crumbled and yielded their stronghold of the city of Aleppo to government forces. Social media was ablaze with pro-Assad supporters talking of the city's "liberation," while those who vehemently oppose Assad's regime tweeted their despair and fear of the brutalities that might be meted out to the civilian population.
Such fears appear to well-grounded, considering this tweet from the official feed of the United Kingdom's mission to the United Nations:
But in the uproar over Aleppo, one incident seems to have been forgotten. Mere days before the city fell, another event of significance occurred in Syria's never-ending catalogue of military victories and defeats, attacks and retreats, seizures and counter-advances. On December 11, the extremist group Islamic State (IS) recaptured the ancient city of Palmyra from the pro-Assad coalition: It was an astounding reversal of fortune given the group's loss of large swathes of its self-proclaimed caliphate over the past six months.
When IS was driven from the city in May, largely thanks to the power of Russian air strikes and, reportedly, private military contractors, it was hailed as vindication for Moscow, which claimed to have joined the Syrian conflict to defeat IS -- despite focusing most of its military firepower against more moderate CIA-backed rebel groups, some of which were fiercely battling IS. Indeed, it appeared that Russia was more concerned with protecting its naval facility at Tartus and propping up Assad than any genuine desire to battle the most successful jihadist group in history.
Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin declared mission accomplished in Syria and announced a partial withdrawal of Russian troops from Syria in April 2016 (a withdrawal that never materialized), Washington had estimated that 80-90 percent of Russian air strikes targeted non-IS rebels.
But the capture of Palmyra, crowed commentators like the Independent's Robert Fisk, proved that this was not the case. Palmyra provided some with the ammunition to advance the narrative that it was in fact Russia, and not the United States, that was truly taking the fight to IS.
Now, barely six months later, Assad's Russian-backed forces have allowed Palmyra to slip from their hands. This is instructive. Russia's original seizure of the city was never about fighting IS. Rather, its goal was two-fold: to seize oil and gas fields in the area, and to score a symbolic victory of recapturing such a historic city from notorious extremists.
Moscow made full propagandistic use of its victory -- holding a concert among the city's ancient ruins, in front of journalists flown in from all over the world, to show the world that it had driven IS from the city. From start to finish it was a marvelously executed spectacle.
Even after the fall of Palmyra, however, Russia had a problem -- a perennial one: the incompetence of Assad. Despite all the assistance he was receiving from his coalition that has kept him in place -- a loose grouping that includes fighters from the Lebanese extremist group Hizballah, Shi'ite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan, Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) commandos, and the Russian military and private mercenaries, the rebels began to drive regime forces out of the strategically vital city of Aleppo over the summer.
Russia was, accordingly, forced to turn its attentions to Aleppo -- a city with no IS presence whatsoever -- which it began to pound from the air in order to achieve its true goal -- keeping Assad in power. The result was inevitable -- in both cases. Aleppo fell and Palmyra, now devoid of Russian attention, was retaken by IS -- its first successful territorial conquest in two years.
This was a state of affairs not lost on Robert Ford, the former U.S. ambassador to Syria, who tweeted:
What makes matters worse is that Aleppo's fall and Palmyra's recapture come just as Washington has agreed to send 200 more troops to Syria to fight IS.
IS's Treasure Trove
Their job will now be made all the harder -- and more dangerous. Thanks to Russia's abandonment of the city to focus on destroying rebel opposition to Assad in Aleppo, IS easily saw off Syrian forces who were so keen to flee they left behind a treasure trove of military hardware for IS in their wake. According to Syrian expert Hassan Hassan, the National Defense Force, a pro-Assad militia unit, "left most of the heavy weapons without a fight." Amaq, IS's news outlet, he continued, claims that 100 pro-regime fighters were killed in the battle and that, critically, IS seized 30 tanks, six BMP infantry fighting vehicles, six 122mm artillery pieces, other smaller artillery, and "untold antitank missiles, grad missiles, tank shells & ammunition."
A video of IS's spoils of war shows that the extremist group captured artillery pieces, heavy antiaircraft machine guns that pose a potent threat to both helicopters and targets on the ground, crates of Kalashnikov assault rifles, submachine guns, large quantities of artillery and mortar shells, and boxes of ammunition. Beyond this, IS will now be in possession of more supplies that are useful for running a military campaign in the desert. An investigation by The Interpreter shows that bank cards from Russian financial institutions and other items with Cyrillic script are present in the video. Whoever was there before IS showed up -- the Russian military, Russian private military contractors, or someone else -- left in a hurry and left behind a good amount of firepower and equipment.
These are weapons may now be turned against U.S. forces that are genuinely battling IS in Syria and Iraq. IS's seizure of the Jazal oil field, the Al-Mahr oil field, the Jahar gas field and the Hayan gasoline company in the areas surrounding Palmyra could also enable IS to replenish its coffers by selling oil and natural gas from the area once again.
Since there do not seem to be any new developments on the geopolitical front that would change Russia's calculus, it seems clear that Russian efforts to prop up Assad -- and destroy the shrinking nonjihadist opposition -- will continue unabated.
It's a salutary reminder that the fall of Aleppo is a catastrophe for the Syrian people but of little relevance to the fight against IS. In fact, as Palmyra shows, Russian actions have only strengthened the beleaguered Islamic State -- an accomplishment that may possibly be paid for in American lives.