Yet another reminder that Isil is winning war on civilisation
Published 23/05/2015 | 02:30
ISIL swept into Palmyra this week. There was the predictable butchery that comes with their arrival as they spread fear and revulsion in their path. Archaeologists and lovers of history everywhere also fear they will smash one of the world's most romantic sets of ruins to smithereens because they have already smashed several shibboleths about the state of the wars in Iraq and Syria.
But what have we learnt from their recent successes?
1. Isil is not on the run. Following its loss of Kobane in Syria to the Kurds and of Tikrit in Iraq in April, the United States seemed to think Isil would implode. It hasn't.
2. Isil is phenomenally well-run as a desert strike force. An air strike has reportedly decapacitated its leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, and its first deputy leader, while the Iraqis claim - unconvincingly - that its new acting leader has also been killed. A score or more other senior leaders have been killed.
But its middle-ranking cadres, many former officers in the army of Saddam Hussein, are skilled military tacticians who were able to out-think both the Assad regime army and, more worryingly, the US-trained Iraqi security forces.
3. President Bashar al-Assad's army is losing. For years it was vaunted as "the strongest army in the Middle East" and some of his defenders in both East and West said Assad was "the only hope" for Syria. It is now clear that his demoralised army is on the run - from Isil in the east, from Jabhat al-Nusra and other rebel groups in the north-west. It is on the defensive in the south and near Damascus.
It has held on so far only where Hezbollah and other Iranian-backed militias are fighting.
4. The Iraqi army is better - but not much so, and it is hamstrung by its leaders. Ramadi's defenders held on longer and with more guts than they are being given credit for - they were surrounded for months, and at the end faced a devastating assault led by concerted suicide explosions each of the size of the Oklahoma bombing, according to American officials quoted by the 'New York Times'.
But promised reinforcements never arrived, and its heavy weapons were for some reason not deployed - instead, they were captured by Isil. Meanwhile, promised plans to arm a Sunni National Guard force to fight Isil have been held up by the Shia-dominated Iraqi parliament.
5. Current US strategy may have held up Isil but will not defeat it.
US President Barack Obama is sure of only two things - he can fight Isil from the air, and will minimise "boots on the ground". But the ground forces he has agreed to arm and train - the Iraqi security forces and some "moderate" Syrian rebels - are as yet too weak to fight Isil.
He will not fight Assad directly - something which would rally Syria's majority Sunni population behind him and his favoured groups.
But nor will he defend Assad against Isil. So that means that whatever happens on other fronts - in Kurdish areas of Syria, for example, or parts of Iraq with a Shia population - Isil can consolidate in Sunni areas.
6. The wars in Iraq and Syria are not solely sectarian. Sunni tribes prepared to fight Sunni Isil are more and more prepared to have their voice heard, and even to join forces with Shia militias previously seen as sectarian.
In Syria, the city of Tadmur, where Palmyra is located, is largely Sunni but its inhabitants fled the approach of Isil.
7. Everything every government everywhere has done in both wars has deepened sectarian divides. The Assad regime has retrenched to its Alawite core, marginalising Sunni members of the inner circle and government. It has been supported by Shia Iran - which has deployed its militias to mainly Shia areas.
Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Turkey have given priority in their backing to Sunni Islamist rebel groups. In Iraq, the government stopped paying loyal Sunni tribal militias because they were not part of the army but has now called on Shia militias to fight.
The United States refused to give military support to the Free Syrian Army when it contained large secular elements - while Islamist fund-raisers and backers channelled arms to Sunni Islamist extremist groups.
8. Only militias, not armies, have the strategic and tactical flexibility to fight Isil - which is strategically and tactically very flexible. Kurdish militias have defeated Isil in north-east Syria, Islamist rebel militias have defeated them in the north-west and south, and Shia militias have defeated them in Iraq. But the Iraqi and Syrian regular armies have failed.
9. US-led coalition air strikes are vital - but only once Isil has been allowed to become entrenched. Without strikes, the Kurds would not have saved Kobane and Iraq's Shia militias would not have retaken Tikrit. Iraqi soldiers say more strikes could have made the difference in Ramadi.
But where Isil has tried to make inroads outside its core territory - in southern Syria in recent months, for example - it has been beaten back by other rebel groups, at least once they received weapons supplies from their Gulf backers.
10. Only hard choices remain, and Mr Obama is not going to take them.
In most of Iraq and Syria, the only forces that can defeat Isil are either backed by Iran, or are Sunni Islamists. It need not have been this way, but it is. Mr Obama is vicariously backing both - by acting as air cover to Shia militias in Iraq, and allowing American allies like Saudi Arabia and Qatar to support Islamists in Syria.
But by not acknowledging this policy, he is giving up American influence on the eventual outcome - whatever that is.
When Mr Obama leaves office in 18 months, he will have kept his hands clean, but will leave chaos behind. (© Daily Telegraph, London)