BEIRUT – The capture of the Iraqi city of Ramadi and the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant are no ordinary conquests.
After weeks of fighting, Ramadi’s fall on Sunday delivered the jihadist group control over a strategic highway linking Iraq and Syria, and a haul of weapons abandoned by Iraqi forces. Three days later, the Al-Qaida breakaway group overran Syrian government troops to seize Palmyra, home to the ruins of a 2,000-year-old city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world.
With the first anniversary of the declaration of its caliphate a month away, the victories put the militants on the front foot at a time when their leaders are seeking to dispel any sense of weakness.
In Syria, it now controls half of the country’s territory and most of its oil and gas fields, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a Britain-based group that monitors the conflict.
“The fact Islamic State is still on the offensive is important, and the timing is important,” said Charlie Winter, a researcher at the counter-radicalization group Quilliam Foundation in London. Pushed into retreat, “it loses power and all the things that drive people to join it.”
The group’s supporters are already touting its latest feats, Winter said, posing the question on social media: “Last year it was Mosul, this year it’s Ramadi, and where will it be next year?”
For ISIL leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and his commanders, it’s a propaganda coup to match their lightning advance across swaths of Syria and Iraq in June last year.
In Iraq, Ramadi’s fall prompted Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to turn to Shiite militias, whose abuses elsewhere have fueled enmity among Sunni tribes toward his government.
The fight to confront ISIL has sought to inflict battlefield losses, counter its appeal to disaffected Muslims and restrict its finances. As it rages, territory under the group’s control comes and goes, said Kamran Bokhari, an adviser for Middle Eastern and South Asian affairs at Texas-based consulting firm Stratfor.
“If they lose an area, they retain the ability to push into somewhere else,” Bokhari said from Toronto. Still, while there’s “a big hype created in the media regarding Ramadi, on the battleground, it’s business as usual: a few kilometers this way or a few kilometers that way,” he said.
Advance in Palmyra
On Thursday, ISIL solidified its rout of Syrian government forces in historic Palmyra, moving to the outskirts to seize its airport and the notorious Tadmur Prison, according to residents and statements from the group.
It was the first time that ISIL seized an entire city from Syrian government forces; it won control of its first major city, Raqqa, from Syrian insurgents and the Al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front after the two became rivals.
Palmyra’s spectacular ruins are a symbol of the country’s heritage embraced by supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad alike. “It won’t be possible to compare previous catastrophes to what could befall Palmyra,” Tourism Minister Bishr al-Yazigi said.
ISIL declared Thursday that it was in control of the town after soldiers “ran away” and “left behind hundreds of dead and injured,” according to a statement released on social media.
The New York Times contributed to this report.