John Haylett writes:
Liberation of the Unesco world heritage site of Palmyra last weekend by the Syrian army was a stunning victory on two fronts against Isis.
Militarily, the Morning Star called it the biggest defeat for Isis “since its fighters were driven from the Kurdish town of Kobane.”
The united efforts of the Syrian army and allied paramilitary forces, co-ordinated with heavy bombardment by Russian forces, sent Isis troops scuttling towards Sukhnah, Raqqa and Deir Ezzor to be pursued by Palmyra’s liberators.
Forcing Isis out of Palmyra after 10 months of slaughter and mass devastation also represented a cultural triumph. Syrian Culture Minister Issam Khalil celebrated a “victory for humanity and right over all projects of darkness.”
Isis ideologues justified on supposedly religious grounds their wanton destruction of the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, the massive Temple of Baalshamin and the Triumphal Arch built by Roman emperor Septimius Severus over 1,800 years ago.
The ancient city’s 82-year-old director Khaled al-Asaad was beheaded in August for refusing to disclose the whereabouts of treasures that could have been sold to bolster Isis finances.
Children were given pistols and ordered to execute two dozen Syrian soldiers against the dramatic backdrop of the site’s ancient amphitheatre.
Damaged young minds may take a long time to recover from the abuse to which they have been subjected, but Syria’s head of antiquities Maamoun Abdulkarim believes it possible “to restore the structures damaged or destroyed by Isis” within five years.
“We have the qualified staff, the knowledge and the research. With Unesco approval, we can start the work in a year’s time,” he said.
Unesco secretary general Irina Bokova welcomed the liberation of the “martyr city,” noting that “Palmyra has been a symbol of the cultural cleansing plaguing the Middle East.
“The dynamiting and pillage of its treasures to break an entire society sparked a unanimous indignation and strengthened the unprecedented mobilisation in favour of the values that unite all humanity,” she declared.
Bokova confirmed that, as soon as security conditions permit, Unesco will go with Syrian experts “to evaluate damage and protect the priceless heritage of the city of Palmyra, crossroad of cultures since the dawn of humanity.”
Unesco’s euphoria over Palmyra’s liberation was balanced by utter silence from Barack Obama, David Cameron and their Nato allies who pass themselves off as fierce opponents of Isis.
The Russian embassy in London questioned publicly why the Tory government had nothing to say about Sunday’s liberation of Palmyra.
A convoluted statement emerged from the Foreign Office on Monday, pinpointing Damascus as “ultimately responsible” for the war in Syria.
“It is deeply regrettable that the iconic site of Palmyra has become a pawn in the wider Syria conflict,” a spokesman sniffed.
Would-be Tory leader Boris Johnson took a different line, noting reports that “Russians have not only been engaged in air strikes against Assad’s opponents but have been seen on the ground as well.
“If Putin’s troops have helped winkle the maniacs from Palmyra, then — it pains me to admit — that is very much to the credit of the Russians. They have made the West look ineffective.”
Johnson’s reference to Russian forces being “on the ground” at Palmyra was soundly based as a spokesman for the Russian military contingent at Syria’s Hmeymim air base announced last week that a special operations officer had been killed at Palmyra.
He was named as Denis Tulchmanov, and had been based for a week in Tadmor, the modern town near the historical site, “spotting crucial Isis facilities and providing precise co-ordinates for Russian air strikes,” according to Russian news agency RIA Novosti.
After being identified and encircled by Isis forces, Tulchmanov faced a choice between surrender or his preferred alternative of calling in bombing raids on his own position that killed him and terrorists surrounding him.
His final communication expressed love for his family and his determination that neither his body nor his uniform would be dishonoured by Isis.
“He died as a hero,” a Russian military spokesman commented.
Colonel General Aleksandr Dvornikov, the commander of Russia’s military campaign in Syria, had previously confirmed that special operations forces were deployed in Syria.
“They conduct ground reconnaissance of preselected targets for Russian warplanes, assist in targeting warplanes in remote areas and perform other tasks,” he said.
Gen Dvornikov reminded his audience that special ops personnel from the US and its allies are performing similar missions in Syria.
However, this begs the question of why the efforts of the Russian air force have borne such bountiful fruit in not only Palmyra but elsewhere in Homs province, Hama, Latakia and Aleppo, while the Nato coalition, Kobane excepted, has bombed here and there but failed to affect Isis.
The obvious answer is that, despite the alphabet spaghetti of armed groups seeking US favour and finance, the only fighting forces capable of taking on and defeating Isis are the Kurdish YPG People’s Protection Units and the Syrian Army, with its Iranian, Lebanese, Palestinian, Iraqi and Afghan volunteers.
Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi told Iranian TV on Tuesday evening that victory at Palmyra has opened the way to the eastern and northern provinces of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa.
He accused the US-led coalition of yielding no results on the ground against Isis and of “mistakenly” attacking national facilities such as the gas facility in Deir Ezzor.
Russian TV network RT has had some macabre fun this week by spotlighting information from a US veterans’ group reporting clashes last month between elements of the Syrian Democratic Forces, backed by the Pentagon, and the CIA-armed group Fursan al Haq (Knights of Righteousness).
Former CIA officer Ray McGovern points to confusion at Washington’s top level between national security adviser Susan Rice and Defence Secretary Ash Carter, topped off by aloofness from President Obama — who acknowledged two years ago that there are no “moderate” rebels in Syria.
However, with hundreds of millions of dollars to spend on these moderates, both the CIA and the Pentagon have to find groups on which to lavish largesse.
While the military end of operations is in chaos, Secretary of State John Kerry continues to drift towards a more realistic political stance over negotiations in Geneva, which reconvene on April 9.
His insistence that President Bashar al-Assad must depart as part of a political solution looks less firm, especially since Washington has effectively ceded the key negotiating role to Moscow’s man Sergey Lavrov. Kerry told CBS:
“Russia is now helping with the cessation of hostilities. And if Russia can help us to actually affect this political transition, that is all to the strategic interest of the United States of America.”
Whatever emerges from Geneva, the current ceasefire has assisted the Assad government to concentrate its resources against Isis and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front.
The United Nations also reported on Tuesday that it has delivered badly needed medical and food supplies to about 150,000 people in besieged areas since the ceasefire began.