Two pieces of information that came from Syria on March 27 give hope that the West Asian nation is finally turning the corner in the civil war and in the fight against Islamic State (IS).
First, after 20 days of intense battle with IS, pro-Damascus forces regained control of the ancient city of Palmyra. IS captured this Unesco World Heritage site and city in May 2015 and went on to destroy many monuments. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces were able to regain control of the city with pivotal backing from the Russian Armed Forces and Iranian troops.
Second, initial reports from Palmyra suggest that the damage to the monuments is not as extensive as experts feared. While the Temple of Baal and the Arch of Triumph have been destroyed, the Agora and Roman amphitheatre, used by IS to stage public executions, have survived.
One person who Syria and the world must be remembered at this moment is Khaled al-Asaad, the Syrian scholar who played a vital role in the excavation of the site and for more than four decades was closely associated with the preservation and promoting of Palmyra. Before the fall of Palmyra Assad had shifted four large consignments of artefacts and antiquities to Damascus and he refused to reveal the locations of the hidden artefacts in the area. After being tortured for over a month he was killed in August.
Palmyra is an important addition to the president’s expanding map of control in Syria, and will help in the recapture of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zour. But a major task will be to demine the city — IS, before retreating, planted a number of mines throughout Palmyra. Reports suggest that experts have demined more than 150 bombs in the archaeological site. It is also a psychological boost to regime forces and will revitalise the fight against IS, which is losing more ground with every passing day.
That said, Syria is not yet out of the woods and the civil war is far from over. The equations among nations involved in the conflict and those in the peace process are still so brittle that a miscommunication will turn back the clock.
One of the reasons for ‘progress’ in the civil war is the intervention of Russia. Russian President Vladimir Putin’s decision to send troops late last year put an end to the indecisive engagement by the West in Syria. Russian forces not only helped Damascus but also pushed IS on the back foot and led events to the current peace talks in Geneva.
The recapture of Palmyra is a reflection of President Assad’s increasing power, but that should not stop the world from asking tough questions.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a month after the cessation of hostilities came into force, 646 people have been killed — 174 of them innocent civilians — “in shelling by the regime” in places observing the ceasefire.
Russia’s role will now be to see that the Geneva talks have a positive outcome. More than any world leader today Mr Putin has got the leverage to influence Mr Assad to cooperate with these talks. This is Mr Putin’s chance to win where the West has failed and bring about peace in Syria.