Islamic State’s Sunday recapturing of the ancient city of Palmyra undermines Russia’s claim that its Syrian intervention is counter-terrorism focused.
ISIS frequently used Palmyra to film beheadings, and drew international condemnation for razing ancient ruins during its occupation. Russia and Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime used their successful March 2016 offensive on Palmyra to peddle the message that they were the only actors in Syria effectively fighting ISIS.
Russian airstrikes since the beginning of the September 2015 intervention have instead been overwhelmingly focused on retaking territory important to the Assad regime. Both Russia and Syria frequently label any group that opposes Assad a terrorist organization. Russian airstrikes relentlessly pounded civilian populations throughout the Syrian army’s campaign to retake Aleppo, prompting accusations of war crimes by the United Nations.
“Greater than 90% of the strikes that we’ve seen them take to date have not been against Isil or al-Qaida-affiliated terrorists,” Department of State spokesman John Kirby told reporters in October 2015. U.S. special envoy to the counter-ISIS coalition Brett McGurk told Congress in February “70 percent” of Russian airstrikes do not hit ISIS. McGurk continued, “they say they want to fight ISIL and al-Nusra but they are hitting groups that are ready to fight ISIL.”
ISIS’s offensive on Palmyra comes as it is engaged in a bitter fight with the U.S.-backed Iraqi Security Forces in Mosul. ISIS’s supply lines have been targeted by the U.S. anti-ISIS coalition, and ISIS’s offensive on Palmyra is likely alleviate that pressure.
“After regrouping, 4,000 ISIS militants made a concerted attempt to capture Palmyra,” Russia’s Ministry of Defense said Sunday while confirming the ISIS attack. “Despite heavy losses in manpower and technology, the terrorists are trying their hardest to gain a foothold in the city.”
“What Russia is sponsoring and doing is not counter-terrorism, it is barbarism,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power declared in September.
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