Syria says government forces have regained control of historic city of Palmyra

Syrian government forces backed by Russian air power wrested control of the historic Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday, army officials said, driving back Islamic State extremists who had seized the city in December. 

The victory comes as the culmination of a weeks-long campaign to take the oasis city, which is home to a majestic set of ruins and a UNESCO World Heritage Site that lies astride the residential part of the city.

A Syrian military spokesman said in a televised address Thursday that “after a series of successful military operations … units from our armed forces in cooperation with friendly and allied forces took back the city of Palmyra and the areas around it.” 

Syrian troops have been bolstered by a number of paramilitary groups, including fighters from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and the Lebanese Shiite group Hezbollah. 

Earlier Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu told President Vladimir Putin that the Syrian government troops had “completed their operation to seize Palmyra” with support from Russia’s air force. 

The Syrian army spokesman said that operations had inflicted “huge losses in men and materiel on the terrorist Daesh organization,” employing Islamic State’s Arabic acronym. He added that engineering crews were dismantling bombs and improvised explosive devices left by the group in the city. 

Activist-run pages on Facebook showed images depicting the damage done to some of the city’s most iconic monuments, including the Victory Arch as well as Palmyra’s ancient theater, which had already been previously damaged by the jihadists.

Islamic State had first overrun Palmyra in 2015, marking its takeover with a massacre of Syrian soldiers perpetrated on the stage of the Old City's theater. It also destroyed ancient graves and busts, and began a lucrative side business looting artifacts and archaeological digs. 

Less than a year later, a wide-scale Russian-backed government offensive successfully routed the jihadists from the city. (Russia’s Mariinsky Orchestra performed a victory concert in the theater soon after.) 

But by December, the militants had regrouped for another attack, easily defeating the skeleton force the government had left behind.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a pro-opposition monitoring group with a network of activists in Syria, said Thursday that Islamic State had withdrawn completely from Palmyra and that government troops had encountered a large number of mines and explosives, a signature tactic of the militant group. 

The Syrian army spokesman said that the taking of the city, which coincides with government advances in the eastern countryside areas of Aleppo, represent “a mortal blow” to Islamic State.

He also insisted that the government’s victory confirmed that the Syrian army “is the only effective force capable of combating terror and excising it” in what was a veiled barb against Syrian rebel factions as well as the Kurdish-dominated Syrian Democratic Forces, which are supported by Turkey and the U.S., respectively.

Damascus has repeatedly called on governments to support its efforts against what it calls terrorists, its blanket term for groups fighting against the rule of Syrian President Bashar Assad.

“The army and armed forces,” concluded the spokesman, is “more determined than ever to continue its operations against Daesh, the Nusra Front [Al Qaeda's Syrian affiliate] and other terrorist groups so as to restore peace and stability to every inch of the lands of the nation.”

Bulos is a special correspondent.

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UPDATES:

1:40 p.m.: This article has been updated with Times reporting.

9:10 a.m.: This article was updated with reports from Russian and Syrian activist groups.

8:15 a.m.: This article was updated with news of Syrian forces regaining Palmyra.

This article was originally published at 4:45 a.m.

 

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