A major blow was delivered to the Islamic State on Friday after Syrian government forces recaptured Palmyra’s old citadel, and U.S. airstrikes killed one of the caliphate’s top commanders.
The terrorist organization, which took large swaths of Iraq and Syria in 2014 and 2015, has faltered in recent months under pressure from all sides. The combination of American air strikes, a well-organized Kurdish militia making advances in the north, and the propped up Syrian government forces is poking holes in their ability to hold on, let alone continue the offensive.
On the issue of U.S. airstrikes, Abd al-Rahman Mustafa al-Qaduli is the most recent high-ranking official of ISIS to be killed, one of several which the Pentagon believes to have eliminated this week. U.S. Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said Friday at the Pentagon “We are systematically reducing ISIL’s Cabinet.” If this is indeed true, it would mark more success for drone operations thus far in eliminating targets. U.S. intervention has been controversial, to say the least. Top secret documents leaked last year revealed that nearly 90% of U.S. drone strikes do not hit their intended target.
In late October of last year, Russia relieved Syrian President Assad’s forces which were at risk of being driven into the sea, by conducting a large-scale air campaign from bases in the country’s east, where Assad was still holding on. Before this, Russia was only involved to the extent of supplying Syrian forces so that they could keep on fighting. With air support, pro-government forces have been able to take back 40
0 settlements and over 10,000 sq. kilometers of territory.
Since March 15th, Russia has withdrawn the majority of its aircraft and troops from Syria, leaving a smaller but still formidable force behind.
Palmyra, an ancient city with rich architecture dating back to Roman times, was captured by ISIS in May of last year during a major two-week offensive, by the end of which, they held at least 50% of Syria. The capture of the city may be one of the largest cultural losses of the war. Militants destroyed many of the most iconic ruins, including arches, temples, and statues that had survived for thousands of years. They decided that the rubble must go because they worshiped‘pagan gods.’ The UN has deemed these actions war crimes. Curators of the ruins tried to remove or hide what they could as ISIS drew nearer, but only so much could be done. Many relics not destroyed went into ISIL’s black market operations alongside illegal oil sales and sex slaves.
Located in central Syria, the city is strategically important, opening up routes to the Underbelly of ISIS. Both sides know its value and fought with ferocity. On Friday alone, jets launched dozens of airstrikes; mortars pummeled the lines, and ISIS unleashed two car bombs. The State News Agency SANA reported “Army units took control over Palmyra’s ancient citadel… after dealing with the last Daesh terrorist groups.” Other strongholds of the IS, like Raqqa, their de facto capital city, are not too far off. Pro-government forces will work over the coming week to strengthen their hold on the city.
Meanwhile, a fragile truce is in place as peace talks continue in Geneva. That peace does not extend to the Islamic State or al-Nusra because of their official UN status as terrorist organizations. No agreement has been reached as to the fate of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who has been accused of war crimes, including the use of mustard gas. One option presented is him playing a role in a transitionary government, rather than throwing him out all at once, which could lead to further unrest.
An end to ISIL’s dominance in Syria is in sight, but the loss of territory will not correlate to the end of their acts of violence. Whatever agreement is settled upon in Syria, a concerted, long-term effort will be necessary for the international community to ensure peace and stability in Syria. After all, ISIS was able to spread in the first place when the U.S. left a dysfunctional Iraq to stand on its own. Learn from the past.