Syrian Government forces have re-captured the ancient city of Palmyra from Islamic State (IS) fighters on Sunday, reported state media and a monitoring group. The Syrian forces were backed by Russian airstrikes as they drove back ISIS thus effectively ending the group’s reign of terror over a town whose famed 2,000-year-old ruins once drew tens of thousands of visitors each year.
An army representative declared on the Syrian state TV that the recapture of Palmyra marks the beginning of IS’ collapse.
The Syrian army had been gaining ground for several days, supported by Russian air strikes. They had been on constant offensive position for nearly three weeks attempting to retake the central town. City of Palmyra, which is known among Syrians as the “Bride of the Desert,” had fallen to the extremists last May.
Military sources say the army now has “full control”. Their advance marks the latest setback suffered by IS, which has come under mounting pressure on several fronts in Iraq and Syria in recent months.
Syrian state TV quoted an unnamed military official as saying that “the armed forces and groups of Popular Defense Committees have fully taken control of Palmyra.” The popular defense committees are militias allied with the government.
The military official added that troops are now dismantling explosive booby traps planted by IS.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said there was still gunfire in the eastern part of the city, but the bulk of the IS force had pulled out and retreated further east.
The world focuses on Palmyra, fuelled by concern over the spectacular ancient ruins on its outskirts, means that this is a major propaganda coup for President Assad and Russia, as well as an important strategic victory.
The Syrian army general command says it shows that the army and its friends are the only force capable of combating and eradicating terrorism. That claim has long rung hollow in Western capitals, but the recapture of Palmyra and the rescue of what remains of its fabled ruins does give it some substance.
The advance marks both a strategic and symbolic victory for the government. Its forces are now better positioned for a future advance on Raqqa, the IS group’s de facto capital, and the eastern city of Deir el—Zour, which is mostly held by the extremists.
When IS seized the city it destroyed archaeological sites, drawing global outrage. Two 2,000-year-old temples, an arch and funerary towers were left in ruins. The jihadist group, which has also demolished several pre-Islamic sites in neighboring Iraq, believes that such structures are idolatrous. The extremists have destroyed a number of historical sites across their self—declared caliphate, viewing such ruins as promoting idolatry. IS also demolished Palmyra’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of government opponents were reportedly tortured.
Syrian Culture Minister Issam Khalil hailed the recapture of Palmyra as a “victory for humanity and right over all projects of darkness.”
The prospect of the city’s liberation was welcomed by UNESCO, the UN’s cultural agency, which has described the destruction of Palmyra as a war crime. The head of Syria’s antiquities authority, Mamoun Abdelkarim, promised to repair as much of the damage as possible as a “message against terrorism”. “We will rebuild what you have destroyed,” he said, addressing IS.
Earlier on Sunday, Syrian state TV interrupted its normal programs to air a documentary about the town and its archaeological sites. “It’s 10 in the morning Palmyra time. Our morning is victorious,” a TV announcer said. Later a TV reporter spoke live from inside Palmyra, showing troops in the center of the town. Some of the nearby buildings had been reduced to rubble.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights confirmed IS had lost the town. He informed that while many extremists died during the conflict, some IS fighters withdrew from Palmyra toward the town of Sukhna and other areas in Homs province. The Observatory’s chief Rami Abdurrahman said three weeks of fighting killed more than 400 IS fighters, as well as 180 troops and pro-government militiamen. Residents told The Associated Press that IS evacuated all of Palmyra’s civilians to other territories under its control before government forces entered the city.
In recent months Syrian forces have advanced on a number of fronts aided by a Russian air campaign. Moscow announced earlier this month that it would begin drawing down its forces, but said it will continue to target IS and other extremist groups. Russian jets carried out 40 air sorties near Palmyra in a 24-hour period, hitting 158 targets and killing more than 100 militants, Russia’s defense minister said Saturday.
Syrian government has also gained advantage from the U.S. and Russian-brokered cease—fire that has sharply reduced violence across the country since it took effect last month. IS and the al-Qaeda-affiliated Nusra Front are excluded from the agreement. The truce is intended to support peace talks underway in Geneva that were adjourned last week.
Syria’s conflict began almost five years ago with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family’s four—decade rule which led to a fierce government crackdown and the rise of an insurgency plunged the country into a full—blown civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people so far.
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