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Analysis: ISIS Gains Momentum With Palmyra, Assad Squeezed on Multiple Fronts

ISIS' conquest of Palmyra marked the latest in a series of setbacks for the Syrian regime, but analysts say not to count Bashar Assad out just yet.
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ISIS' conquest of the ancient city of Palmyra marked the latest in a series of setbacks for the Syrian regime, but analysts say not to count out President Bashar Assad just yet.

This week's capture of the so-called "Venice of the Sands" and its Roman-era ruins marked what appeared to be the first time ISIS directly seized a city from Syrian military and allied forces.

French President Francois Hollande said the fall of Palmyra showed Assad was significantly diminished and called for a new push to broker a deal for his ouster.

"With a regime that is clearly weakened, and with a Bashar Assad who cannot be the future of Syria, we must build a new Syria which can be rid, naturally, of the regime and Bashar Assad but also, above all, of the terrorists," he said Friday.

NBC News reported in December that ISIS and Assad's forces were mostly ignoring each other on the battlefield, focused on eliminating smaller rivals ahead of a possible final showdown.

The Assad regime was focused on stamping out the moderate and weaker opposition — and knew ISIS was doing so too. Now both are starting to engage in a "much more concerted way" because "there isn't much of a moderate left," according to Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane's Terrorism and Insurgency Center.

However, there is still one large, well-funded and well-armed obstacle acting as a thorn in both sides: the Army of Fatah, a coalition which includes the al Qaeda-linked Nusra front and recently seized control of Idlib from pro-government forces.

Analysts say the Army of Fatah also poses a longterm threat to ISIS as a competitor. Rumors are rife that the coalition is receiving funding from a variety of external actors — Saudi Arabia, Turkey and even Qatar — and Assad has had to rely on Hezbollah fighters for help in the Qalamoun Mountains to beat back the rebels.

"The Assad government now is being squeezed between these two groups who are still competing with each other," Henman said.

In a rare public appearance earlier this month, Assad downplayed recent setbacks in Idlib as a normal part of any war.

"Psychological defeat is the final defeat and we are not worried," the Syrian leader said at the time, explaining that amid his army's relentless war there were occasions when the fighters had to "retreat back when the situation warrants."

With other Islamist groups like the Army of Fatah taking the fight directly to the Assad regime — particularly in the northwest of the country —ISIS has "clearly felt a need to respond to that," according to Henman.

Seizing Palmyra looks like a solid way of doing so: It put ISIS back in the headlines as a force capable of snatching territory away from Assad and positioned the group along a key highway network well-situated for further gains.

"Palmyra is a national treasure but it is not key to the regime’s fate"

The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Friday that ISIS had seized the last border crossing between Syria and Iraq controlled by Assad's forces, situated in Homs province. The monitoring group also has said with the capture of Palmyra, ISIS now controls more than half of all Syrian territory.

That doesn't mean that ISIS necessarily outsmarted pro-government forces for Palmyra, according to analysts. Instead, it appears that ISIS found a way to "take advantage of the situation," Henman said.

"The opportunity was right to strike at Palmyra … while the government is very busy elsewhere fighting," he added.

Analysts said that while the Assad regime certainly is facing a number of challenges — including an overstretched military — it would be premature to interpret Palmyra's fall as a sign of its impending collapse.

Failing to put up a big fight for Palmyra actually could have even been a strategic move on Assad's part, according to Ayham Kamel, the Eurasia Group's Middle East & North Africa director.

While previously the regime tried to maintain at least nominal control in each of Syria's provinces, Kamel said the losses of Palmyra and Idlib show that "the former strategy is no longer working."

He said that with fights on so many fronts it simply has become "unsustainable" for the military to devote equal resources in all locations — quite possibly forcing the regime to literally pick its battles.

"Palmyra is a national treasure but it is not key to the regime’s fate," he explained. Instead, the regime might be calculating that troops are needed elsewhere in more strategic locations for long-term viability.

While the regime is "definitely" weaker than six months ago, it's not necessarily weaker than two months ago, Kamel said.

"We’ve seen very clearly that in the war, the pendulum sways in both directions," he added. "The current balance of power on the ground is not necessarily permanent."