Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes pushed Islamic state militants from Palmyra on Sunday, ending the seemingly endless reign of terror over a historically rich town, whose world-renown 2,000-year-old ruins once attracted tens of thousands of tourists from across the globe each year.
Government forces have been struggling to drive out extremist forces from town for months. In comments reported on state TV, President Bashar Assad described the Palmyra operation as a “significant achievement” offering “new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy espoused by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.”
Gen. Ali Mayhoub announced on the station that that the fall of Palmyra “directs a fatal blow to Daesh, undermines the morale of its mercenaries, and ushers in the start of its defeat and retreat,” referring to IS by its Arabic acronym. He said it is a strong foothold for further advances toward Raqqa, the IS group’s de facto capital, and Deir el-Zour, an eastern city it largely controls.
Troops in Palmyra are now working on disassembling explosive booby traps planted by IS, the station reported. State TV and a Britain-based monitoring group later reported that troops took over a military airport to the east.
This significant victory paves the way for future anti-extremist efforts. The town was an important supply location for an IS line connecting its territory in central and northern Syria to the the Anbar province in Iraq.
IS took control of Palmyra in a few short days last May, and later wrecked havoc on many well-known monuments in its UNESCO world, including two temples that date back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal archway. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was shown decapitated, and the museum’s basement appeared to have been destroyed, the hall littered with broken statues.
The extremists beheaded the archaeological site’s 81-year-old director Riad al-Asaad last August after he reportedly refused to reveal where the treasures of the city were hidden.
Syrian Culture Minister Issam Khalil described the recapture of Palmyra as a “victory for humanity and right over all projects of darkness.” Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of the museums and antiquities department in Damascus, said Palmyra’s Great Colonnade had suffered only minor damage. “We will rebuild what you have destroyed,” he said, addressing IS.
However, the opposition coalition did not agree with that statement. “The government wants through this operation to win the favor of Western nations by fighting against terrorism, while obscuring its responsibility as providing the reasons for the spread of terror,” said Khaled Nasser, a member of the group that has been negotiating with the government in Geneva.
Residents of the town told The Associated Press that IS evacuated all residents before proceeding with the operation. “It’s joyful for people to return home. Still we are sad to see damage in this historical city,” said Sohban Eleiwi, a businessman from Palmyra now residing in Homs. But other residents said they would not return to live under the regime. “We don’t hate the regime any less than we hate Daesh,” said Osama Khatib, a Palmyra native who fled to Turkey three years ago after being convicted for taking part in the opposition coalition. “Daesh and the regime behave the same way,” he said.
Russia’s defense minister said Saturday that Russian jets carried out 40 air sorties near Palmyra in a 24-hour period, hitting 158 targets and killing more than 100 militants.