ARLINGTON, Va. — The commander of U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria said Islamic State fighters scored a nice weapons cache from the Syrian government and Russians when the ancient city of Palmyra was retaken, and if Moscow doesn’t strike to rid ISIS of those arms the U.S. might.
Through its Amaq news agency, ISIS said Sunday that the Syrian city fell after four days of battle and the “collapse of the Syrian army’s defenses and Shiite militias within the city.”
ISIS claimed they killed “nearly 100 people from the army and militias, as the state forces captured 30 tanks and 6 BMP and 6 guns of 122mm and 7 machine guns…and quantities of anti-tank missiles and launchers, as well as amounts of tank shells and unexploded Grad rockets.” They released video of ISIS fighters poking through crates of arms at an abandoned military camp.
Lt. Gen. Steve Townsend, commander of Operation Inherent Resolve, told reporters via video link from Baghdad today that Syrian and Russian forces took the city from ISIS months ago, and then “probably took their eye off the ball in Palmyra because they were so focused on Aleppo and they didn’t properly secure their gains.”
“So ISIL’s been looking around the battlefield trying to get some sort of victory…they’ve been unsuccessful. So I think they saw a weak spot at Palmyra against the Russians and the regime and they’ve had a little bit of a victory there,” Townsend said. “I expect that the Russians and the regime will address it here in short order.”
In the meantime, the general noted, “it’s complicating our life a little bit because they — ISIL’s managed to get their hands on some equipment there.”
“We’re watching that,” he said, adding that if Russia doesn’t take care of the problem “we will.”
Townsend said he’s “not really exactly sure” what ISIS took as “they didn’t send us an inventory of what they’ve seized there.”
“We believe that includes some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air defense equipment,” he said. “Basically, anything they seize poses a threat to the coalition, but we can manage those threats and we will. I anticipate that we’ll have opportunities to strike those — that equipment and kill the ISIL that’s operating it soon.”
The general confirmed that the U.S. only coordinates activities with Russia in the region when it comes to deconfliction: reducing the risk of potential collisions between coalition and Russian aircraft.
“And so, Palmyra is their part of the battle space, but because ISIL may have come into the possession of some significant pieces of weaponry there, we’re concerned about it,” Townsend said. “And I think Russia will probably take action. If they don’t, we will do what we need to do to defend ourselves and we’ll coordinate — we’ll deconflict those actions with the Russians.”
Townsend then clarified the U.S. would “probably” strike the weapons cache “if we see it moving away from Palmyra.”
“As long as it stays in Palmyra, the Russians will have lead and the regime will have the lead to deal with that,” he said.
He also underscored that “there’s not necessarily a battle space, we don’t have an agreement with a map, with a boundary, the Russians have this and the coalition has that. There’s not such a thing. There are facts of life, there are places where the regime are and there are places where the Russians are with the regime, usually, and there are places where the coalition and our partners are.”
The general recalled when the regime with Russian support took the city from ISIS. “Seems like I remember they brought in an orchestra from Moscow or somewhere in Russia to perform a concert there in the ruins of Palmyra to celebrate their victory. I think they failed to consolidate their gains and they got distracted by the things they were doing, took their eye off the ball there, the enemy sensed weakness and struck and gained a victory that I think will probably be fleeting. But a victory against the regime and the Russians nonetheless.”
“They lost it and — so I think it’s up to them probably to take it back. And the reason we’re not acting more aggressively is first of all, that’s the first fact of life is that was theirs,” Townsend said. “The second fact of life is we’re not sure who is there on the ground, we can’t tell one side from the other. So we can’t tell if the truck and the armored vehicle is being operated by a regime trooper, a Russian trooper or ISIL fighter, we can’t tell that. So we’re just kind of staying out of it and watching it right now and protecting our own interest and letting the Russians sort that out, which I think is probably the common sense way to go about Palmyra.”