Last week, the Islamic State seized the ancient city of Palmyra from Syrian President Bashar al Assad's forces. The city's capture adds to the many defeats Damascus has suffered over the past six months, compounding its problems as it faces threats on multiple fronts.
The Islamic State's victory in Palmyra is notable for two reasons. First, it has completely isolated loyalist forces in Deir el-Zour province, including the 137th Mechanized Brigade and the elite 104th Republican Brigade. Second, Palmyra's location — a critical crossroads in the center of Syria — gives the Islamic State a strategic base from which it can launch attacks on key locations in the surrounding area.
The Islamic State's maneuvers in Homs province, where Palmyra is located, denote a shift in its strategy in Syria. Previously, the Islamic State fought against the People's Protection Units in Kobani and al-Hasaka while maintaining its positions in Aleppo province.
Earlier in the conflict, Damascus removed its forces from Homs province and deployed them against the growing rebel threat of Jaish al-Fateh in Idlib province. The redeployment, which transferred the elite Tiger Forces and Desert Falcons away from the Islamic State's area of operations, will now be seen as a mistake. The elite forces have been unable to halt rebel advances in Idlib, and their departure from Homs has left the government highly vulnerable on its eastern flank.
The Islamic State now threatens the Syrian government's core territory, which stretches from Damascus to Aleppo. It is likely that the government will try to take the fight to Islamic State forces stationed in Palmyra, if not to recapture the city then to pin the group down in a single location and keep it from spreading to other strongholds. Either way, any action al Assad takes in response to the Islamic State's success in Homs will expose Damascus on other fronts.