This Sunday, ISIS re-captured Palmyra from Syrian government troops while Russian and Syrian forces were preoccupied with Aleppo.
After being expelled by the Syrian and Russian forces nine months ago, the IS re-entered the city on Saturday for the first time. Russian and the Assad’s forces pushed the IS militants out of the city borders, but the IS regrouped and attacked Palmyra from multiple fronts. Government fighters were forced to retreat and the major tourist attraction that Palmyra City used to be before 2011, was taken over.
Talal Barazi, Homs Province Governor, has said that the IS attack on the city is a “desperate” reaction to the Assad’s government military “victories” on the ground. He also said that those who support terrorism, including Western countries, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar wanted to “realize some type of gain” and chose Palmyra because of its reputation. While the ancient city with 2,000-year-old ruins holds mostly a symbolic meaning in the Syrian civil war, its central location, in fact, is important in providing some strategic advantage.
By Sunday evening, there was no sign of government forces shifting resources away from Aleppo. The re-capture of the Palmyra seems to play no role in Assad’s and Russia’s final push on the last rebel-held Aleppo neighbours. In fact, the government has mobilized some 40,000 fighters for Aleppo. Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said: “I don’t think the regime would withdraw forces from Aleppo to Palmyra and risk losing Aleppo. As for Palmyra, the whole international community would stand by it against IS.”
IS has been suffering from a number of defeats over the last year in Syria and Iraq, as they have been losing many cities and towns due to IS forces having captured them, and today it is under attack in Mosul, Iraq. The head of Palmyra News Network, Mohammed Hassan al-Homsi, said that IS fighters are steering away from northern Syria, where the international coalition and Turkey have focused their fight against them. Although their slight retreat and losses may seem reassuring, state news agency, SANA, quoting an anonymous military official, reported that IS received reinforcements from Raqqa, thereby allowing them to attack with “large numbers.”
Russia, on the other hand, blames the US-led coalition, emphasizing their scaled down operations against Raqqa. The Ministry’s statement said that more than 4,000 IS fighters were deployed to Palmyra and hence allowed their takeover of the city. Earlier, Russia had stated that they repelled the IS attack by launching 64 airstrikes overnight and killed over 300 fighters in Palmyra.
Many civilians were trying to escape the city along with remaining government and allied troops. However, there are few people left in the city and, according to government estimates, there are somewhere around 1,000.
Last year, when IS seized Palmyra the first time, mass executions were conducted and Khaled al-Assad, Palmyra’s leading archaeologist was killed. The 2,000-year-old towering Temple of Bel and the Arch of Victory were destroyed. Although the vast majority of artifacts had already been moved from Palmyra to Damascus, many old buildings, a UNESCO world heritage site, including the amphitheater and the ancient citadel, are now at risk.
Despite the government’s and Russia’s focus on Aleppo, and a number of losses by the IS, the second failure to protect Palmyra raises questions about the Syrian military’s capacity. This also illustrates that the IS still has the ability to take over a city.
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