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Why Palmyra Fell to ISIS: Defense Was Left to Easily-Spooked Second String Formations

A hard-won victory from earlier this year has been reversed in a snap

It had nothing to do with the Russians who had withdrawn over five months ago

By taking Palmyra earlier this year the Syrian army and their Russian backers gained an exposed and isolated salient deep into ISIS-controlled desert that arguably should have never been taken.

The town was never going to be very defensible, unless the surrounding mountains were taken as well which was never done. Its control offered little real value to Syria seeing it was a town of  fewer than 80,000 residents most of whom had fled when ISIS stormed it in May 2015.

Of course the Russian-Syrian taking of the town and the surrounding historic ruins in March was a good morale booster and a great moral victory for Damascus and Moscow. Ultimately the propaganda value of liberating this ancient city from ISIS which threatened its destruction was well worth the effort even if it has now been embarrassingly lost.

As the anti-Assad camp and would-be western regime changers well know in a conflict as messy as the one in Syria public relations considerations can be as important, or more important than strategic calculus.

(In other words, it made sense for the Syrian army to pursue a strategically unsound objective if it would serve to temporarily undermine neocons and liberal bombardiers.)

What is far more worrying than the loss of Palmyra is the manner in which it was lost. Both times when ISIS took the town it did so far more rapidly than did the Syrian army. Where Syrians needed weeks to dislodge outnumbered ISIS from Palmyra in March, they themselves, likewise outnumbered, fled before ISIS after just days of fighting.

The basic reason is very simple. With all eyes on Aleppo defense of Palmyra was left to second and third string units and these just aren't very good -- especially when they're not fighting for their local village.

Palmyra -- deep in ISIS
Palmyra -- deep in ISIS

Truth is when Russians worked with the Syrian army in taking Palmyra they could barely believe the low quality of the Syrian units. (And those were at least largely Syrian Arab Army formations -- whereas garrisoning the town was later largely entrusted to the even less skilled National Defense Forces militia).

Sputnik gave a good write up of the Russians' shock. Firstly the Russians devised a straightforward, by-the-books plan to take the town, only to discover the Syrians they've been given are nowhere near good enough to carry it out:

The intention looked very convincing. However the organizers of the storm did not take into account the low military fighting efficiency of the Syrian army and its low ability to mount an offensive. Upon examination of the readiness of the assault detachments for the operation it suddenly turned out that they were understaffed and its military personnel was absolutely not ready for the upcoming battles.

It turned out that the Syrian servicemen had no battle training, there were no essential logistical stocks and nobody has been getting ready for the storm.

Instead of directing them in battle the Russians had to start training Syrians right from the basics:

In other words, the expert says, the level of training of the assault detachments and their weaponry and military hardware resources did not allow to launch the assault within the set time limits.

The commanders in charge of the operation had to start with elementary tactical training and firing instruction. Tank and armored personnel carrier crews, snipers, operators of grenade launchers and engineers underwent the initial training. In the long run, they have got relatively combat-capable crews.

During the fight for Palmyra the situation was very similar to what is constantly going on along the entire Syrian frontline: Syrian army, experiencing heavy losses was barely advancing for several kilometers and then hurriedly retreated without any reason to its starting positions.

Another problem was informants scattered among the ranks and careless use of radios which telegraphed the course of the attack to ISIS:

From the first days of the fight for Palmyra it became clear that the militants had an extensive agent network which helped them to obtain verified information about the operations of the "Palmyra" group.

The commanders of the armed gangs had the dates of the assaults of the pro-government forces long beforehand.

Besides the agent network, the enemy has been intercepting radio traffic of the Syrian servicemen and learning about the planned assaults due to systematic violation of security measures by the servicemen.

With all the data of the planned assaults at hand, the Islamists were able to strengthen the existing and construct new defensive positions on the city's fringes. They were able to plant mines on major routes long beforehand which enabled them to hold their positions.

I'd say this goes some way to explaining why the pro-government camp has such problems holding onto what their best units capture. Truly there are few things scarier than being part of a neglected and poor combat unit. A soldier in one has to:

  • fear his comrades will break and run leaving him exposed
  • fear his commanders will set up his unit for foolish and unnecessary risk
  • fear the command won't reinforce and resupply them in time

Moreover in Syria an added problem is that any pro-government fighter has to feel that burdens aren't being shared evenly. With millions in exile (including fighting age men) and millions more living almost normal lives (there is no general mobilization) in Damascus and some of the other cities a soldier who wins the lottery to be sent to the exposed and isolated Palmyra salient has to feel pretty darn unlucky.

Add to this that when you're fighting head-chopping ISIS you really don't want to be the last man to be making a run for it and one can imagine how the National Defense militiamen broke so fast they left behind about a dozen undamaged tanks.

Another thing. It has been reported ISIS attacked just two days after Russian sappers and regular troops guarding them withdrew from Palmyra. This is absolutely false. Russians had pulled back from Palmyra already some six months ago.

Russian camp 5 months ago:

Russian camp 7 months ago:

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