As Russians Fiddle in Palmyra, ISIS Advances
Russia pulled out all the stops last week to honor an officer from its special forces who was killed in Syria.
Alexander Prokhorenko died during the fighting in Palmyra in March. After being surrounded by ISIS forces, he ordered an airstrike against himself rather than being killed or captured. The 25-year-old was dubbed the “Russian Rambo” by his country’s state media.
His body was flown to Moscow upon Russian President Vladimir Putin's orders, who posthumously awarded Pokhorenko the country’s highest medal, Hero of the Russian Federation. The body was received by an honor guard at a Moscow airport, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu and other top brass paid their respects.
The body was then flown to Prokhorenko’s home village of Gorodki, 1,200 km east of the Russian capital, where it was laid to rest.
What made the “Russian Rambo” so important? None of the other Russian soldiers who died until then in Syria have received the honors he did. Moscow has not even released the number of solders killed.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources and its sources in Moscow report that the gesture was Putin’s way of informing his people that Russian ground troops are taking part in the war, even though he had promised they would not be doing so, and that there are losses.
Prokhorenko was a member of Russia’s Spetsnaz special forces that arrived in Syria in the first half of October 2015 at the start of Moscow’s military intervention in Syria. At first, the Kremlin claimed they were only deployed to protect the Russian bases and units, and not to fight in the war. Shortly afterwards it became clear that the Spetsnaz troops were the ones directing the airstrikes by Russian bombers and warplanes around the country.
There is no doubt that the battle for the capture of the city of Palmyra from ISIS was a turning point in the involvement of Russian ground troops in the war. It was clear to the Russian commands in Moscow and Latakia that Syrian President Bashar Assad was not ready to allocate the forces needed for the campaign. They also suspected, as they still do today, that Assad has secret understandings with ISIS under which the two sides will avoid attacking each other. Either way, it was clear that if they wanted to capture Palmyra and the surrounding area they would have no choice but to use Russian ground troops.
DEBKA Weekly’s military sources disclose that the fight for the city was completely different from its description in the Western and Russian media. There were no Russian or Syrian attacks in the conquest of Palmyra. Whenever ISIS saw Spetsnaz forces, they took flight.
It was not by chance that on May 6, the same day Prokhorenko’s funeral was held, the Russian air force flew the country’s premier orchestra, the Mariinsky Theater Orchestra, and a group of famous conductors led by the well-known Valery Gergiev, to Palmyra for a gala concert at the ancient city’s Roman amphitheater.
Putin wanted to show that Russia is ready to make sacrifices in order to restore civilization in Syria, but people in Russia and the West showed little interest.
ISIS was not impressed. As the Russian fiddled the Islamists lunched on Wednesday May 11 a surprise offensive to retake Palmyra.