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Lüders: 'Homs will be 'IS's next target'

With the occupation of Palmyra, the 'IS' militia has taken control of about half of Syria. Time is on the Islamists' side and Middle East expert Michael Lüders told DW Damascus and Baghdad are in danger, too.

Mr Lüders, is the

occupation of Palmyra

an important victory for the Islamists, or is it just new fodder for their propaganda machine?

Michael Lüders: No, this is indeed a significant victory for 'Islamic State', because the city of Tadmur - close to the ancient ruins of Palmyra - is the first city under the control of Assad's army which was conquered by 'IS'. So this is, psychologically speaking, a blow to the regime.

The oasis city of Palmyra Is famous for its antique temples and cultural treasures. Is that one of the reasons for 'IS's invasion?

Certainly 'IS' is aware, too, of the role of this historical site as cultural heritage of mankind. There are grounds for suspecting that 'IS' will sell everything but the kitchen sink. And there are strong indications that this antique site, which has survived over 2,000 years, will be blown up. This would be in line with the previous logic espoused by 'Islamic State': everything that predates the inception of Islamic religion is regarded by its fighters and ideologists as un-islamic and worthy of destruction.

22.11.2012 DW QUADRIGA Michael Lüders

Middle East expert Michael Lüders

What is the strategic importance of the city, which has a population of 70,000?

You have to look at the geography: Tadmur, or Palmyra, is only 150 kilometers (93 miles) away from Homs. From a geostrategic point of view, Homs is a major city where all north-south and east-west routes in Syria come together. In the past, Homs was an embattled city which saw fierce fighting. In addition, countless oil and gas fields are located between Palmyra and Homs. Therefore, Homs is likely to be 'IS's next target. If this happens, the Assad regime will be in trouble.

In neighboring Iraq, 'IS' managed to seize the provincial capital Ramadi last weekend. For weeks we were under the impression that 'IS' had been weakened. Was that a wrong impression?

Yes. That was a completely exaggerated depiction primarily concocted by western secret services. In the wake of the recapturing of Tikrit by the Iraqi army and Shiite militias the CIA, but also the German foreign intelligence service (BND), had spread the word that 'Islamic State' had its back against the wall. In hindsight, this analysis may have been mere wishful thinking. In actual fact, 'Islamic State' currently is in a phase of great self-confidence. It has understood that it can evade American air strikes if it advances in very small units instead of convoys.

The Iraqi army reports that the air strikes were, occasionally, successful: allegedly, the self-proclaimed 'IS' caliph al-Baghdadi was heavily injured in the wake of a US air strike in spring. His deputy al-Afri was allegedly killed in an airstrike. Do you think those reports are reliable?

We have had such reports again and again. As an outsider, it's impossible to determine if they are true or mere war propaganda.

Bildergalerie Palmyra

The antique site of Palmyra is now under 'IS' control

If Palmyra is an important stage for 'IS' on its road to Damascus, does the same apply to Ramadi and Baghdad in Iraq?

Ramadi is a mere 100 kilometers (62 miles) away from Baghdad. This is almost like assuming control of Potsdam when you target Berlin. Viewed from the west, Ramadi is the last major city on the way to Baghdad. 'IS' will certainly try to target Baghdad. If it advances further, 'IS' will be able to shell the city's airport. That would amount to a psychological defeat for the regime. However, it will be impossible for 'IS' to actually capture Baghdad. 'IS' is a purely Sunni extremist group and can only move around in areas predominantly inhabited by Sunnis.

What would one have to offer Sunnis, who currently believe that 'IS' is the lesser of two evils, compared to the Iraqi government?

That is the key question. Ultimately, there can be no military victory over 'Islamic State'. As long as it is deeply enrooted in Iraq's own Sunni population, it can only be pushed back, reined in. Victory over 'IS' is only possible if the moderate Sunnis in Iraq rise up against their spoilers from 'Islamic State' circles. However, they will only do that if the government in Baghdad, which has been representing Shiite interests exclusively, embraces the Sunnis.

In this respect, we've seen a lot of lip service in recent months, but nothing happened. The Sunnis are almost completely barred from allocation of resources in Iraq, and that explains why they support 'IS'. And we must not forget that the military leadership of 'IS' is not made up of bearded Islamists, but of supporters of the former Saddam Hussein regime, members of the military and secret services, who know exactly how to fight a war. They know that the Americans and others cannot win a war on the ground. Therefore, time is on the side of the 'Islamic State', for the time being.

Irak Flüchtlinge aus Ramadi

Displaced Iraqis from Ramadi rest before crossing the Bzebiz bridge

How can further advancement of 'IS' in Syria be stopped? Will the west have to embrace Assad?

There is no doubt that Bashar al-Assad and his regime are criminals. However, Bashar al-Assad is the remaining person capable of containing 'IS', in Syria at least, using military power. The west has to make a decision: does it want Assad's downfall, as proclaimed in the past? Then it would create a power vacuum in Damascus, which will be filled either by 'IS' or by the al-Nusra front, the Syrian branch of al-Qaeda. Since no-one in any western capital is in favor of that option, there is in fact one remaining alternative: approaching Assad, offer him military support. That would amount to throwing western policy of recent years overboard.

Does the same apply to collaboration with Tehran?

We have seen a lot of movement in this respect. In fact, Washington tolerates everything undertaken by Tehran, primarily training of Shiite militias fighting 'IS' in Iraq. In Syria, things are a little different: in the absence of Shiite militias, Lebanon's Hezbollah does the fighting. But there are also leading Iranian officers who are, partly, in command of the Syrian army. Of course, Washington knows that and tolerates it tacitly, well aware that this is the better alternative to an occupation of Damascus by 'IS'.

Dr. Michael Lüders is a journalist, political and business consultant and author of both fiction and non-fiction books. A political scientist and scholar of Islamic studies, Lüders is also deputy chairman at the German Orient Foundation.

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