Russia raises the curtains in the battle for Palmyra

Russia raises the curtains in the battle for Palmyra
5 min read
11 May, 2016
After Russia's classical music concert at Palmyra's amphitheatre, Syrian regime losses have made this 'victory' performance appear premature, forcing Moscow back into a battle in Homs.
Syrian regime and Russian troops are now having to defend Palmyra from IS [AFP]

Last week, a Russian orchestra performed a concert in the ancient ruins of Palmyra, a city recently won by the Syrian regime – with Moscow's assistance – from the Islamic State group.

President Vladimir Putin's fingerprints could be seen on the performance. It featured two of the Kremlin's favourite musicians, conductor Valery Gergiev and the cellist Sergei Roldugin, the president's best friend, while Russian and Syrian regime troops made up the audience.

Where the St Petersburg Mariinsky orchestra belted out sublime classical music, IS had publically executed 20 captured soldiers one year before.

It was also a stage for Russia to announce the extension of its military mission into the hinterlands, and the regime to portray itself as a civilising force saving Syria from barbarism. 

In the past couple of days it became clear that these gains were being quickly lost to a IS counterattack. Hope for the regime now appears to lie in a small, primitive Russian military base lying to the south of the Palmyra amphitheatre.

Unbroken alliance

The appearance of this interior camp comes months after the Kremlin announced a partial withdrawal of its forces from Syria in March, when it appeared the Syrian rebels had been seriously undermined.

The Russian military camp – flanked with razor wire and a Russian flag flying in the desert air – is a clear sign of Moscow's re-committal to the war, particularly as Damascus' gains in Homs look close to being undone.

"Very little is known about it right now beyond what has surfaced in videos. There are definitely de-mining specialists and all kinds of advisers there, and a large protection force for them," said Kirill Mikhailov, who contributes to Conflict Intelligence Team, a group which monitors Russian troop movements in Syria and Ukraine.

Videos have shown a Pantsyr-S1 air-defence system, BTR-82A armoured personnel carriers, and Russian troops operating at the base.

"The colour of the BTR-82A APCs suggest marines, which are used to guard Russian on-the-ground personnel," he said.

"So far we have seen several instances of Russian marines appearing near the frontlines in Syria, and each time they were protecting people – from journalists to artillery crews."

Mihkailov says there has been an unusually large number of advisers, Special Forces, and possibly artillery gunners, operating in this remote area of Homs.

Armoured vehicles at the base are probably not intended for combat, he says, but could be used if IS launches a counter-offensive on the city.

IS and pro-Damascus forces are currently engaged in fierce fighting in the outskirts of Palmyra. On Tuesday, IS reportedly captured a regime base in the area, and cut the main road between regime-held Homs city and Palmyra.

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It is not known what role Russian troops are playing in these battles, but the fact that IS fighters have effectively surrounded Palmyra could force them into a battle with the group.

"On-the-ground elements like special forces, artillery and advisers are still very much there," said the analyst.

"Russia still renders significant aid to the regime – including direct ground-based artillery support – and I don't see that ending any time soon. Russia is certainly trying to produce an impression of absolute security in Palmyra, given that concert."

Under threat

Yury Barmin, a Russia analyst, believes that there are signs that Moscow wants to establish a foothold in the Homs region, after expanding its presence at Tartous port and taking over Latakia airbase.

The presence of such hardware in the Syrian interior also marks a shift in Moscow's involvement in the war.

"Moscow probably rushed to get a foothold in Palmyra to secure the presence of international journalists who were flown there for the concert and the tour of Palmyra, which was an important PR move for Putin ahead of the May 9 Victory Day parade in Russia," he said.

Now that Palmyra looks under threat from IS, Russia might could consider extending its support to Damascus to save face.

"The presence of Pantsyr air defence systems suggest that Russia will, in fact, continue to expand the base, so it is not at all a temporary arrangement."

However, given the enormity of the task of establishing a permanent base in a far-off desert region – surrounded by hostile parties – it is unlikely to be an immediate concern for Russia.

"Having a permanent base in central Syria is very risky because Assad's control over the areas adjacent to Deir ez-Zour is still very unstable. So I would say that the [Russian military airport in Latakia] is still viewed as the major base and Palmyra will only act in a supporting role."

Gas

Although the Syrian regime's fight against IS has been generally lacklustre, Damascus has always proven more determined to fight when it comes to taking areas with natural resources.

Shaer gas fields in Homs has been the site of fierce fighting in recent days.

"[The base] is now conveniently placed with helicopter operating bases at either end of the gas fields. But if there are Russians near Palmyra, they'll have to defend it. If they hand over to the Syrians, who then lose it, that's different," said James Spencer, a MENA political and security analyst.

"They can provide close air support to the Syrians. And getting the gas back under government control is probably financially advantageous."

After winning back Palmyra – and revelling in the propaganda of "rescuing" the ancient city – an emboldened Damascus might have hoped to use this as a launchpad for further missions into Homs.

Ultimately, it could have considered an expedition to recapture Deir az-Zour city, where embattled regime quarters remain, Spencer said.

Now it is looking questionable whether it can hold on to the Palmyra countryside and its oil fields, while IS fighters remain just 60 kilometres from the city.

Damascus is once again on the defensive, and made Russia's declaration of "mission complete" at the Palmyra performance look hopelessly premature.

"Internationally, the gas fields are irrelevant; the key issue was Putin being able to stage a violin concert where no one else had been able or willing to do so."