Nine months after they were driven out of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, Islamic State militants have fought their way back, The Washington Post reported Saturday.
The advance into Palmyra seemed set to reverse a year of steady defeats for Islamic State fighters and came three days after a big offensive launched from three directions in the surrounding desert.
Palmyra is the site of an ancient Roman complex of temples that is considered one of the world’s archaeological treasures, and work had recently begun on restoring some of the many ruins that were blown up during the Islamic State’s 10-month occupation of the city.
It is also the one place where Russian military intervention had made a significant difference in the fight against the Islamic State. Russian airstrikes facilitated the Syrian government’s recapture of Palmyra in March, and in May the Russian military escorted a planeload of journalists on a victory tour of the city, complete with a performance by a Russian orchestra.
Syrian activists and human rights monitors said Islamic State fighters entered the city itself late afternoon Saturday after government defenses collapsed. A Syrian activist from Palmyra who uses the name Khaled al-Homsi said that by late evening, the militants controlled most of the city. Islamic State fighters were detaining young men and looting stores of weapons, he said.
The offensive was aided by 200 Islamic State fighters who had made their way to the area from the Iraqi city of Mosul, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Street fighting is continuing and it’s not clear that the terrorists will be able to fully recapture the city. According to a Syrian military official quoted in Russia Today, “the Syrian government still has forces inside Palmyra and has not fully lost control.”
The Islamic State is reportedly known for “launching spectacular attacks” that catch their enemies by surprise, only to be driven back once their opponents regroup.
The Palmyra advance coincides with a major U.S.-backed offensive by the Iraqi army for Mosul, where hopes for a swift victory are fading as the militants put up a stiff fight. They also still control large portions of Syria, including much of the vast eastern desert where Palmyra is located.
The U.S. military announced Saturday that it was sending an additional 200 Special Operations troops to northern Syria to help the mostly Kurdish force that is battling the militants there.
Those additional troops will be joining 300 other Special Operations forces already on the ground in Syria helping in the fight against ISIS.
According to the activist-run Palmyra Coordination network, the jihadists entered the city by its northern and northwestern neighborhoods.
Via Arutz Sheva:
The group, which maintains contacts inside the city, said ISIS fighters were approaching the city’s UNESCO heritage site as well.
Osama al-Khatib said government soldiers were fleeing Palmyra.
“The army as an institution has dissolved,” he said. Some soldiers and militiamen remain in the city, along with 120 families who have not been able to leave, Khatib said, speaking to AP from Gaziantep, Turkey.
“There is strong fighting on all sides,” he reported. “There is no exit except through a corridor to the west.”
ISIS overran Palmyra, known as the “Pearl of the Desert,” in May of 2015 and it has since blown up UNESCO-listed temples and looted relics that dated back thousands of years.
The jihadist group used Palmyra’s grand amphitheater for a massacre in which child members of the group killed 25 Syrian soldiers, execution-style, in front of residents.
They also beheaded Palmyra’s 82-year-old former antiquities director in August of 2015.
The Russian symphony orchestra, led by Valery Gergiev, performed in Palmyra back in May, soon after the city was liberated from the terrorists.
The concert was devoted to the victims of extremists, and intends to instill hope that peace can triumph over war and terrorism.
The symphony orchestra concert was titled “Praying for Palmyra – Music revives ancient ruins” and was performed in the Roman Theater of Palmyra, one of the few sites still largely intact after Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) captured the city. The venue served as the main site for the annual Palmyra festival prior to the terrorists’ rampage in the region.