The news that Palmyra had once again succumbed to an onslaught launched by Islamic State (IS) militants arrived along with notification of the bloody terrorist attack, injuring dozens, at a church near the cathedral housing the seat of the Coptic Church in Cairo. Palmyra is an ancient landmark of global cultural significance, and according to legend, this Coptic center where many relics from the earliest centuries of Christianity can be found sheltered the Holy Family after their flight into Egypt. IS has already claimed responsibility for the attempt to destroy human lives and Christian holy sites in Cairo and, according to some reports, the group that carried out the attack came from Raqqa, the «capital» of the jihadi pseudo-government.
The symbolism behind IS’s actions is clear – to show that that organization is still alive and can launch unexpected offensives across a vast geographical expanse. The events in Palmyra and Cairo are also linked by a strategic military plan. The situation mirrors the events of 9/11. On that day in 2001, the precursors to IS from al-Qaeda worked with the Taliban to plan a general offensive in Afghanistan and used the explosion of the Twin Towers in New York to issue a warning to the Americans not to interfere. And the recent terror attack in Cairo is the same signal to the Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, cautioning him not to meddle in Syria.
General el-Sisi increasingly favors Bashar al-Assad and is even ready to send Egyptian military divisions to assist him. Some sympathy exists between the two statesmen. At the time that el-Sisi assumed power in Egypt, Assad not only fully supported him, but even hinted at Damascus’s involvement in that event. On his end, el-Sisi has argued for Bashar al-Assad to retain his grip on power in Syria and has expressed support for the Syrian army’s battle against terrorism.
Reports have emerged that the Egyptian military has already made its way to the theater of military operations and is stationed inside zones controlled by the Syrian government, while pilots from Egypt have been deployed there as well. It has been suggested that two Mistral-class amphibious helicopter carriers, which Cairo obtained from France, will receive their baptism by fire when large-scale Egyptian divisions are moved into Syria. And the joint exercises between Egyptian and Russian paratroopers that were conducted in the Egyptian desert are seen as a possible precursor to their close cooperation in the sands of Syria. Although Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and other leaders within that country who have been forced to take into account the position of creditors from Saudi Arabia have denied the existence of such plans, el-Sisi himself allowed some uncertainty to remain by claiming that «it would be better if the Syrian national army achieved its goals on its own.» Meaning that the possibility of Syria receiving aid from Egypt has not been ruled out.
It can be assumed that if Egypt does intervene, that will not affect the areas occupied by the so-called moderate opposition that is supported by the West, the Gulf nations, and Turkey, but will instead be directed against IS. Therefore, critics of the rapprochement between Cairo and Damascus (at one time even a unified Egyptian-Syrian state existed – the United Arab Republic) will find it difficult to obstruct Cairo. For Egypt itself, its role in the final phase of the rout of IS is a matter of prestige: this will allow the leader of Egypt to carve out a niche for himself as both a regional leader as well as an international mediator. Not to mention the fact that routing IS in Syria will facilitate Egypt’s struggle against terrorism on its home turf.
After the liberation of Aleppo, the battleground for fighting IS might take a strategic shift from Palmyra toward the besieged city of Deir ez-Zor 150 kilometers away and toward a section of the Syrian-Iraqi border near the Iraqi city of Mosul. Success there would make it possible to cut off communication between IS units in Syria and Iraq, and the Islamists’ capital in Raqqa would be completely isolated.
It was expected that by late January or early February 2017, before the onset of the March sandstorm season (known as khamasīn), there would be an end to the transfer into Palmyra of the most combat-ready government divisions out of the regions of Aleppo and Damascus, in preparation for a decisive offensive against IS. It was supposed that by that time a wide cordon of safety would be in place around the capital. It was quite likely that at that stage troops from Egypt and possibly other Arab countries (such as Algeria) would join the operations of Assad’s army, which would radically alter the big picture in the Middle East.
IS commanders decided not to wait for such a development and launched a preemptive strike in order to drive back the front lines of the imminent battles as far as possible from its main centers of activities. And to give them their due, the ISIS bosses showed real finesse in their preparations for the operation. There were reports that their main forces were approaching Palmyra from Iraq or from the direction of Raqqa, but this was not entirely true. The main corpus of the assailants consisted of approximately 4,000 militants who had already taken Palmyra earlier, but then been forced out into the suburbs last March. To that was added roughly another thousand militants with technical skills (mainly the ones operating the heavy military equipment and «jihad-mobiles»), who played a role in breaking through the defensive lines around Palmyra. Therefore intelligence services could not provide a full picture of the concentration of IS forces – there was no massive transfer of forces across long distances.
However, despite having achieved an important tactical success as a result of the whirlwind capture of Palmyra, IS might not have won anything. The front line of Damascus’s battle for Deir ez-Zor and the Iraqi-Syrian border is simply being shifted 150 km. to the west, to the Palmyra region, and this time its job is not simply to oust the insurgents, but to completely encircle and destroy them.
Nor are IS’s calculations about scaring Egypt out of acting as a potential ally of Damascus likely to pan out. Just as the 9/11 attacks failed to stop the Americans all those years ago, instead only goading them into a military onslaught against Afghanistan – so too might Cairo now take a more decisive position in Syria. After all, it would be impossible to do away with the terrorism barraging Egypt without destroying its organizational hubs in that country.
After the terror attack in Cairo, el-Sisi held a meeting of government leaders and senior security officials, at which he urged them to «do more» to eradicate terrorism. At the same time the Egyptian president advised focusing on «the areas outside the country itself», where «deadly attacks» are being planned.
The state’s international standing in part hinges upon its ability to resist attempts at blackmail by terrorists. So it will not be surprising if the insignia of Egypt’s combat units can be glimpsed here and there on the forces that launch an offensive against IS positions in Syria in early 2017.