The ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site, and the adjoining, inhabited town of Tadmor, changed hands between two forces of darkness in Syria on Sunday morning.
Last May, the Islamic State (Isis) took Palmyra, almost without a fight – as some of the regime's supporters complained – and now a pro-Assad coalition, led on the ground by Shia jihadis controlled by Iran, supported from the air by Russian airstrikes, has conquered the city.
The former development was (rightly) near-universally seen as a negative, but the latter has found itself something of a fan club – despite a ground force of Shia militias consisting of registered terrorist organisations, such as Hezbollah and Iraqi 'Special Groups' that have Western blood on their hands.
It was inevitable that Robert Fisk would be the first to write in support of the pro-Assad forces and other commentators, too, welcomed the overturn, notably Boris Johnson. Even the Pentagon greeted the measure as "a good thing".
The reason for this, intuitive to so many, is, as Johnson phrased it, because "no matter how repulsive the Assad regime may be — and it is — their opponents in [IS] are far, far worse." This is what one might most charitably call a moral illusion, perhaps borne of the measure by Assad – and the Iranians that largely control his regime – to hide their atrocities from view.
Of the 470,000 Syrians who have been killed in this terrible war, the overwhelming majority have been killed by Assad and his allies, and that's even truer of the civilian casualties. The United Nations in February concluded that the Assad regime had violated the laws of war in six distinct ways and committed systematized atrocities — crimes against humanity — in seven separate categories, including rape and extermination. There is no cruelty IS has committed, from sexual violence to immolation, that the regime has not at least matched and usually exceeded.
Another fundamental flaw in the Fisk-Johnson analysis is that Assad provided the essential context for the emergence of IS. From the outset of the uprising, Assad, Iran, and Russia devoted an enormous amount of resources to a global disinformation campaign to present a line on which Assad has staked his survival – Syria is a binary choice between the dictatorship and a terrorist opposition. Assad then worked to make it come true.
Faced with a popular revolution demanding an end to corruption and tyranny, Assad responded with merciless violence. Inflicted in a deliberately sectarian manner, intending to provoke a counter-radicalisation from a largely Sunni population, Assad could then say his war was with extremists and terrorists.
To speed this process along, Assad released hundreds of jihadi prisoners in waves of amnesties – one just eleven days after the uprising began. IS worked in secret to infiltrate Syria in late 2011, and had a running start due to the massive IS infrastructure already in Syria. This was largely apparent in the east – their current heartland – where Assad had overseen training camps, safe houses and even provided medical care for IS as it warred against the US and the Iraqi government after 2003.
Once IS emerged publicly in Syria in April 2013 — despite Assad's counter-insurgency strategy, based fundamentally on the use of air power to cause displacement, preventing an 'appealing' rebel government taking hold — Assad left IS almost wholly alone until late 2014. After IS had taken Mosul and made itself internationally known, Assad began launching token airstrikes at IS and posed as its foe to try to muscle into the then-nascent international coalition against IS.
After airstrikes against IS in Syria began in September 2014, with the international community taking care of IS in the east, Assad could perform an "economy of force" and focus on the real threat to his rule – the mainstream rebellion.
President Obama told Iran before these strikes began that Assad was off-limits. Guaranteed security from the US, and the benefits of 'indirect coordination' with the West enabled Assad to gain legitimacy as a counter-terrorism partner – via reconciliation within the international community – in an attempt to reflag efforts to suppress a rebellious population in the War on Terror. Russia's intervention in Syria was designed to further this strategy.
The Russian airstrikes in Syria, which began last September, have continued this effort to force a binary choice on Syria. Russia killed at least 2,000 civilians and deliberately targeted civilian infrastructure, such as hospitals, amid a systematic campaign to weaken the anti-IS rebels and the communities on which they rely.
The Russian intervention was pro-Assad, not anti-IS. This difference was seen in the first weeks when Russia bombed and killed hundreds of rebels in Aleppo because they were threatening to the regime – removing the obstacle that had kept IS out for two years, allowing IS's largest land-grab since the taking of Palmyra and Ramadi in May 2015.
Palmyra should be seen in this light: it is a political message. Amid the glories of antiquity, Assad poses as the frontline for civilisation against barbarism. As the former leader of the Syria desk at the State Department, Frederic Hof put it: "Russia and the regime have, at long last, turned their attention to ISIS. Moscow's aim is to drive Washington into an anti-ISIS working relationship with [Assad]".
Some excitable commentators have declared that the Assad-Iran-Russia conquest of Palmyra puts paid to the notion of strategic collaboration between Assad and IS. As the above shows: this is, at best, ignorance, and at worst propagandising for tyranny. This was the script Assad had in mind all along. Assad beginning to fight the terrorists he facilitated into being, in order to defeat an anti- authoritarian uprising, is hardly any cause for praise. Extending Assad's rule, in time or geography, only guarantees further killing and chaos.
Kyle W. Orton is associate fellow at the Henry Jackson Society and a Middle East analyst and commentator. Follow him on Twitter: @KyleWOrton
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