22 May 2015
Terror group faced little resistance from local forces, prompting re-evaluations across a region that had sensed it might be in retreat
Islamic State fighters are celebrating their second major conquest in a week in Syria and Iraq as they pick through the ruins of the historic city of Palmyra.
The sudden advance of the militants into the UN heritage site in central Syria resulted in the rout of a national army, the exodus of refugees and a fresh pulse of regional alarm at the resilience of the self-styled caliphate force.
The UN said one-third of Palmyra’s 200,000-strong population had fled. And Isis militants used social media to show themselves posing amid ancient columns in Palmyra on Thursday. Other images displayed a more familiar theme: the summary slaughter of local men whose blood drenched the road.
Isis’s latest advance has prompted a re-evaluation across the region, which had earlier sensed it might be in retreat. From Beirut to Baghdad and as far away as Riyadh, regional actors are coming to terms with an organisation that can win most of its battles and successfully storm Syria and Iraq’s best-defended bastions.
The seizure of Palmyra followed the equally startling conquest of Ramadi in Iraq’s Anbar province last weekend. Both operations, around 600 miles apart, have become emblematic of a terror group that can have its way across two crumbling countries despite embattled state forces being propped up by global powers.
In Syria, forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad had committed to defend gas fields to the north of Palmyra that are essential to the nation’s electricity supply. The ruins themselves, as well as being enduring testaments to the country’s diverse past, are central to the pluralistic image conveyed by the modern state. Both sites are strategic, yet they fell in less than four days – with elite army units unwilling and unable to defend them.
Ramadi in Iraq, meanwhile, had been a holdout in the heart of the country’s most hostile province – a place where local Sunni leaders allied with the Shia-led government and its militia proxies to keep Isis at bay.
That too changed in less than 72 hours of clashes, where top-tier troops and tribes posed little resistance. In both cases, once the battles started going badly, state forces surrendered the cities to their fate, leaving large amounts of ammunition behind.
“They wanted to defend this area,” said a government official who fled Palmyra for Damascus on Thursday. “They even tried to. But if that’s the best that they can do when they try, then the country is lost.”
Officials who had fled Palmyra said jets from the US-led coalition that had bombed Isis targets elsewhere in the country had not joined the fight. US jets were instrumental in expelling the terror group from the two cities it has lost so far, Kobani, in Syria’s north, and Tikrit, in central Iraq.
The fall of Ramadi stirred ghosts of a painful past: jihadis had used the city as a launch pad to spread nationwide chaos from 2004-07. That could never happen again, Iraqi officials claimed. The fact that it has – yielding Isis its most spectacular triumph this year – has shattered already brittle confidence in the ability of Iraq to hold the country together.
In both countries, residents said the Isis victories said perhaps more about the weakness of the states than about the potency of the jihadis. And while the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the fall of Palmyra meant Isis now controls more than 50% of the country, opposition groups countered by saying that battle lines elsewhere in Syria had not shifted in Isis’s favour since 2013.
Gains against the Syrian regime, they said, had been made by groups who previously fought Isis and included an amalgam of mainstream fighters and jihadis, among them the ascendant al-Nusra front, which like Isis has been prescribed by the US and much of Europe as a terrorist group.
The anti-Assad opposition played no role in the Palmyra clashes. Regime troops had been the area’s primary defenders.
In Ramadi, despair was endemic. “There are no police left,” said the police chief, Colonel Jabbar al-Assif, himself a recent exile. “Everyone left was killed or is injured. Whoever didn’t make it out was killed later on by Isis. They have a list of all the policemen and the soldiers, with addresses, and they were going to their homes to kill them. So all of the police families fled too.
“Most people in Ramadi want to fight but they don’t have weapons. The government hasn’t helped us. The police ask the government for weapons and the government tells them: ‘Go and buy weapons and we will reimburse you.’ When did that ever happen in any country?”
The Isis advances mark a sharp turnaround from events earlier this year when it lost Kobani and Tikrit and was forced to retreat from around 7,700 sq miles (20,000 sqkm) of land in northern Iraq. That had led to claims that it could not hold its gains, and that after a year in which sociopolitics of the Middle East had been overturned, Isis could no longer secure its objectives.
“If the state was strong, then that would be the case,” said an army officer who ordered his men to flee Ramadi. “They are not winning because they are powerful. They are winning because we are weak. I’m not sure about Syria, but I think it’s the same there.”
Thirty miles closer to Baghdad, in the city of Falluja, which is also under Isis control, some residents say they have become used to the jihadis in their midst and have come to prefer them to the vagaries of central government rule.
“We don’t have much electricity and fuel and we have been bombed a lot by the air strikes, but apart from that we are in a better condition than we were under the army,” said a doctor to whom Isis had offered security and a platform that Iraq’s government could not match.
“We in Falluja prefer to stay here in our homes than become refugees begging to enter Baghdad or left to rot in refugee camps which aren’t even suitable for animals. We prefer to live with our dignity in our city. We are all viewed by the government as Isis, this is our identity.”