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What’s Russia up to in Syria? I would wager they’re after something big – retaking Palmyra

Vladimir Putin hasn’t sent his soldiers to Syria just to show solidarity with Bashar al-Assad. Nor has he flown them into the Russian bases around Tartous to keep Assad in power. That goes without saying. And Putin isn’t worried about losing the only warm water Mediterranean port still in Moscow’s hands.


He wants a victory. Syria’s army, the only institution upon which the regime – indeed, the entire state apparatus – depends is being re-armed and trained for a serious military offensive against Isis, one which is meant to have enormous symbolic value both in the Middle East and in the world. Military plans always get delayed. And the moment the first artillery piece sends off a shell, the plans always go wrong. In Syria, operational details change every day and every night. But I’ll wager a well-informed guess right now – and we’ll keep calling this a guess, if only for form’s sake – that the Syrian army is being primed to recapture the ancient Roman city of Palmyra from the Islamists.

New Russian fighter-bombers, new anti-armour missiles, perhaps even the new T-90 Russian tanks are being prepared for the desert terrain. One of Syria’s most modern air force bases lies scarcely 50 miles from Palmyra – on the main road east to Homs – and the Syrian army has for months planned for an attack around the city. Only weeks ago, they postponed an offensive for fear that Isis would destroy the rest of the Roman city. But such concerns have now diminished. Isis has shown itself quite willing to destroy the Roman temples without a military assault on its forces.


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