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There are currently three tracks in the Syrian civil war: the cessation of hostilities between the government and the opposition; the negotiations in Geneva; and the war against the Islamic State group. The cease-fire is barely holding, and the war on ISIS is moving forward, but the talks in Geneva are fully stalled. The Assad regime's move late last month to from ISIS is related to all three tracks.
The pause in fighting declared in late February proved surprisingly durable, until a few days ago. The opposition was already dispirited and exhausted in the face of a sustained Russian-backed offensive, and thus welcomed -- and have largely stuck to -- the cessation. On the regime side, the Russian insistence on the cease-fire, followed by the partial Russian withdrawal, indicated to President Bashar Assad that Russia had reinforced the regime's battlefield positions, but would go little further in engaging in an open-ended war against the opposition. At the same time, the Russians have indicated their willingness to be more engaged in the fight against ISIS.
The cease-fire and the evolving Russian position affected Assad's strategy. His intention had been to maintain Russian help until a full battlefield defeat of the opposition, while leaving the fight against ISIS for a later stage. With the first lane closed, he was forced to reevaluate.
President Vladimir Putin announced the partial withdrawal of Russian forces from Syria on the same day that world leaders were meeting in Geneva for scheduled peace talks, with the for "an intensification of the process for a political settlement" to the conflict. But the Assad government has effectively refused to negotiate. Assad himself has said that the war will continue until the regime subdues all of Syria, and his officials have insisted that any talk of a political transition is . The government delegation doesn't even recognize the opposition as a negotiating partner, as "terrorists."
With Assad being the clear spoiler at Geneva, to the ire of both Russia and the West, the campaign to retake Palmyra deftly shifted attention from Assad's unwillingness to negotiate, to Assad's role in defeating ISIS.
Indeed, there are already politicians and commentators in Europe and the United States who have forgotten how Syria and ISIS got to where they are today, and are now rushing to embrace Assad. They are mistaking the cause for the cure. While the Assad regime can play an important role in the war on the Islamic State, and the main institutions of the Syrian state must endure through any political agreement, only a serious resolution of the Syrian political conflict -- including a political transition and the eventual expiration of Assad's presidential term -- will stabilize the country and ultimately defeat not only ISIS, but the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front as well.
Furthermore, while Assad's forces took Palmyra, other groups were moving against ISIS strongholds elsewhere. The U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces, which include Kurdish YPG forces and allied Sunni and Christian militias, moved closer to the ISIS capital of Raqqa. Other rebel units backed by the United States and Gulf states have pushed toward ISIS strongholds in Deir Ezzor and Dabiq. With the cease-fire freeing up fighting capacities on both sides, the war against ISIS in Syria appears to have finally begun in earnest. All sides will be scrambling to gain territory as this fight proceeds.
Although the regime has finally decided to engage the Islamic State group after allowing it to flourish for three years, it faces constraints. Palmyra was relatively close to the capital and fairly easy to capture. Campaigns to reclaim Raqqa or Deir Ezzor will be far more challenging. The regime's own fighters are stretched thin and exhausted from five years of combat; they are still willing to fight and risk death in defense of strongholds in Damascus, Aleppo, and the Alawite coastline, but embarking on ambitious campaigns in the north and east of the country will be a very difficult sell.
Among the regime's allies, Russia now regards the war on ISIS as the priority and has proven willing to provide extensive air support. But the Syrian government's Iranian and Hezbollah allies will be less enthusiastic about providing manpower. They have indicated a firm commitment to defending the core territories of the regime, but have expressed little enthusiasm for ambitious campaigns further afield. The defeat of ISIS in Syria will have to be a multiplayer affair with a role for the regime, but also important roles for the Kurdish and Arab rebel militias. Indeed, that Russia and the United States are discussing concrete military coordination to liberate the Islamic State stronghold of Raqqa.
Assad's recapture of Palmyra is, nevertheless, an important blow against ISIS. It has also enhanced Assad's position by shifting attention from his past brutality and his refusal to negotiate, to his belated role as a player in the war against ISIS. His role will be important, but one shared with rebel groups. And while the war against the Islamic State may draw attention away from a much need political resolution, if and when the campaign against ISIS is completed, the question of political change in Syria will then return front and center. Both the regime and the opposition will gain credit and territory in the fight against ISIS, but they will eventually have to sit down again to find agreement at the end of it. Assad can be part of the start of the negotiations, but it is difficult to envision a deal that will allow him to retain his seat indefinitely.