Within a matter of days this week, the Islamic State group seized with apparent ease the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in both cases seemingly coming out of nowhere to rout government forces.
BEIRUT — The Syrian army soldier had long served in Palmyra, but he was on leave when he heard that Islamic State group militants had attacked a village northeast of the desert city, killing dozens of his comrades. He sent frantic texts, trying to reach them. No one answered.
He shared his anguish last week in a series of texts, as he pieced together bits of the story from survivors of the massacre. Soldiers told him they ran out of ammunition. One officer radioed headquarters: “We’re finished.” Worst of all, the soldier said, was the photograph he was shown of the decapitated body of a friend, the 19-year-old daughter of a Syrian general.
Within a matter of days this week, the Islamic State, also called ISIS or its Arabic acronym Daesh, seized with apparent ease the cities of Ramadi in Iraq and Palmyra in Syria, in both cases seemingly coming out of nowhere to rout government forces. On Thursday, the militants were digging in, consolidating their grip and executing people with ties to the old order.
Yet a closer look at the two battles shows the Islamic State group following a longer-term strategy, in both cases biding its time, taking territory mainly from other insurgent groups. Then, after years of war, attrition and corruption have left the government forces demoralized and, particularly in Syria, hollowed out, it attacks, overrunning them.
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Palmyra was a place where tensions had long simmered, a mainly Sunni tribal city where a local rebellion was put down early in the war, and where relations between residents and security forces were complex. A young officer serving there from the Alawite heartland had confessed a year earlier that he felt no connection to the population, and feared residents would kill him the first chance they had.
Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland, was also divided in its loyalties.
Those problems were on display in Palmyra before and during Wednesday’s rout. Residents were caught between the latest Islamic State onslaught and what sometimes seemed like a haphazard government response. The scenes of chaos that unfolded belied Syrian state news media’s claim that government forces had withdrawn only after taking families to safety.
Residents — supporters and opponents of President Bashar Assad — described officers fleeing, leaving civilians and lowly conscript soldiers to fend for themselves. One business owner said he watched pro-government militiamen run helter-skelter into orchards, not sure where to retreat. “Treason,” he called it.
Residents videotaped airstrikes coming close to the town’s medieval citadel, and wondered why the militants had not been bombed earlier — by the government or, for that matter, by the U.S.-led coalition waging a parallel air war against them — while traversing miles of open desert roads.
But most of all, they said, they had lost any sense that the government could provide safety even to its loyalists. On Thursday, after the militants had taken over the city and begun executing people they deemed close to the government, many residents were cowering in their houses and basements, terrified of Islamic State fighters in the streets and of government shelling and airstrikes from the sky.
Some found it ominous that Syrian state news media had incorrectly declared that most civilians had been evacuated, perhaps signaling an excuse to increase airstrikes.
“I can foresee the regime bombarding the town massively, especially after the huge loss among its soldiers,” said Khaled al-Homsi, a member of the committee that organized anti-government protests in Palmyra in 2011, before anyone imagined full-blown civil war, let alone a group like the Islamic State.
“The civilians are terrified,” he said. “The only bakery is controlled by ISIS. The army is bombing randomly.”
Homsi, 32, a former hotel worker who uses a nom de guerre for safety, said he was nervous that Islamic State fighters would seek revenge against him and other activists who oppose them and the government.
“I’m happy that Palmyra was liberated from the regime but not happy it fell under Daesh control,” he said. “In my view, as an activist, it’s not a liberation.”
For Homsi, the day’s events had presented him with a new power to revolt against. “We will face and confront the destruction of the town’s history and heritage,” he said. “The revolution was and will remain my life. We won’t accept oppression from anyone.
As for the Syrian soldier, he had lived through bloody battles, but none had shaken him like the deaths of his comrades. (Thirty-five soldiers were buried in the provincial capital of Homs on Thursday alone, a resident who lives near the hospital there said.)
“I wish I were not a soldier, but a civilian living normal life, married with children,” he confessed Wednesday. His situation, he said, reminded him of a line from the beloved poet Nizar Qabbani:
“Love me … away from the lands of oppression and repression, away from our city which has had its fill of death.”
Then he headed off to try once more to reach the front. He has not texted since.