Palmyra pays the price for Assad’s miscalculation about ISIL

Bashar Al Assad’s hopes that the world will come to his feet and seek his contribution without demanding any compromise are misplaced, writes Antoun Issa

An aerial view taken on January 13, 2009 shows a part of the ancient city of Palmyra.  ISIL militants seized Palmyra on May 21, 2015 amid fears the extremists would destroy the ancient city. Christophe Charon / AFP Photo
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As ISIL militants moved into the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria’s head of antiquities pleaded last week for the US-led coalition to come to its aid and strike the terrorists battling government forces.

It was a desperate request that highlighted the corner into which the Syrian regime has backed itself.

The government headed by President Bashar Al Assad has until now refused to entertain the possibility of joining the US-led coalition against ISIL, without conditions demanding a political compromise in its civil war.

Now, it is the Assad regime that is calling for international assistance to save one of the world’s richest archaeological sites. This turnaround has shot through the facade of confidence repeatedly presented by Mr Al Assad and other officials this year, and exposed the weakness of his hardline approach to the Syrian conflict.

The Syrian army found itself alone to confront ISIL in Palmyra, a fate that could have been avoided had its government engaged in diplomatic overtures and pursued a genuine political process to resolve its conflict.

Since the beginning of the US-led airstrikes against ISIL last September, the Syrian regime has rebuffed and ignored a number of opportunities to explore a diplomatic solution to the crisis. In September 2014, rumours emerged that Mr Al Assad had turned down a quiet suggestion from its main ally Iran to explore a unity government with the Muslim Brotherhood.

If true, a peace process including the Brotherhood would have won the crucial backing of Turkey, which has logistically facilitated the Islamist rebellion against the regime via its long border over the past four years.

Damascus also reportedly did not show much enthusiasm for Russia’s attempts — initially backed by the US — to relaunch a peace process. Moscow hosted talks in April, which received no fanfare, and were boycotted by most of the opposition.

Not only has the Assad regime rebuffed diplomacy, it has not produced its own political plan to end the Syrian civil war, or shown any willingness to compromise, despite the high costs: more than 220,000 deaths, a large proportion of which are army soldiers; 9 million displaced; a ravaged infrastructure and economy; and significant damage to archaeological sites.

Instead, the Syrian regime has bunkered down, and stubbornly persisted on its war-only path to end the conflict. Its plan of action was to consolidate its strength in what it terms the core of Syria — the key cities in the centre, Damascus, and the coast.

It was of the belief that it could fend off rebel attacks, while gaining full control of the Damascus suburbs and the Qalamoun mountains bordering Lebanon, and possibly strangling east Aleppo into surrender.

In the meantime, it hoped that blowback from the Syrian war on the West — terrorist attacks and waves of migration across the Mediterranean — would pressure Western governments to impose a solution to the Syrian crisis in Mr Al Assad’s favour.

By early 2015, Mr Al Assad seemed to have the clear advantage. The rebels in Syria’s north were in disarray, ISIL was defeated in Kobani and losing towns in Iraq, and the regime was making gains against rebel strongholds in both Aleppo and the suburbs of Damascus.

But the Syrian government was over confident in its calculations, and momentum has sharply turned in favour of the rebels.

Saudi Arabia and Turkey have momentarily put their differences aside and helped Jabhat Al Nusra, Al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria, capture Idlib and Jisr Al Shughour in Syria’s north-west.

With the Syrian army on the backfoot following its losses in the north, ISIL launched its own assault to take Palmyra.

Although the gasfields and electricity supply it gained in the offensive are major prizes for ISIL, what is more important is the strategic significance of cutting off a key regime supply route to its forces in the eastern city of Deir Ezzor.

ISIL has tried repeatedly, and unsuccessfully, to take the entire city, which is split between ISIL and regime control. Winning Deir Ezzor will give ISIL total control of Syria’s east.

Palmyra has paid the price for Mr Al Assad underestimating the ISIL threat and his refusal to engage in diplomacy.

ISIL cannot be defeated until the Syrian civil war is resolved. The terrorist group returned as a major force with the breakdown of the Syrian state, and it is only with its repair can this menace be effectively dealt with.

But Mr Al Assad’s hopes that the world will come to his feet and seek his contribution without demanding any compromise are misplaced.

The Syrian government must pursue diplomacy and a genuine political process to resolve the conflict. Until then, ISIL will keep pillaging towns and cities, destroying priceless historical artefacts, and the Syrian and Iraqi peoples will continue to suffer.