Syrian government forces drove Islamic State militants out of the ancient city of Palmyra on Sunday, dealing a blow to the extremist group that could effectively end its presence in central and eastern parts of the country.
President Bashar Assad's army had imposed "total control" over Palmyra, state news agency SANA reported, citing a military source. Government troops backed by Russian and Syrian air units were pursuing Islamic State militants retreating toward areas held by the group in the east, SANA reported.
The retaking of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site that is considered to be one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world, is the clearest indication yet that the tide is turning in favor of government forces against Islamic State, six months after the Russian military began providing its support.
More than 100 government troops and an estimated 400 militants died in the battle, according to the pro-opposition Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group with a network of activists based on the ground in Syria.
The city fell into the hands of the extremists in May in a swift and sudden strike that left many Assad loyalists trapped in the city, only to be brutally killed in a staged mass execution on the stage of Palmyra’s ancient Roman theater.
During the extremist group’s 10-month reign, unique archaeological treasures were blown up by the jihadists, whose austere interpretation of Islamic law caused them to view the relics as sites of pagan worship. Among the known losses are a 2nd century statue, Lion of al-Lat; the city's magnificant Arch of Triumph; the Temple of Baalshamin; and dozens of funeral towers.
In August, the group beheaded Khaled Assad, retired director of Palmyra's antiquities museum, before crucifying his mutilated corpse on a traffic light pole in the center of town.
The full extent of damage to Palmyra's ancient sites has been unclear, but should be fully revealed in the coming days.
Over the last week, Syrian government forces, backed by Russian special forces units and advisors, clashed with Islamic State militants in and around the city. They finally pushed through to the majestic ruins that lie at the southwest entrance of the city's residential neighborhoods, under heavy cover from Syrian and Russian warplanes and a steady barrage of artillery.
Assad's forces were reportedly slowed by their inability to use heavy weaponry in the ruins. They also had to navigate dozens of IEDs, a parting gift left behind by Islamic State fighters.
Embedded pro-government reporters deluged social media with up-to-the-minute updates on the assault, even as the army’s media unit broadcast pictures of soldiers holding Kalashnikovs over their heads in triumph, and edited videos of tanks and heavy armor firing into the distance while army helicopters swooped overhead to destroy tanks.
The takeover was confirmed by opposition sources, including the Observatory, which reported that sounds of sporadic gunfire and explosions could still be heard from Palmyra’s outskirts.
With Palmyra back under government control, world attention turned to the fate of its monuments.
Palmyra was an important caravan oasis in the ancient world that became increasingly important under Roman rule in the 1st century. It was a key stop on the trade route linking Persia, China and India with the Roman Empire.
Besides destroying some of its most important Roman-era structures, Islamic State converted the Palmyra museum into a court and a dungeon, and destroyed a number of Islamic shrines, according to Dr. Maamoun Abdelkarim, director of Syria’s antiquities and museums directorate.
Writing in the British Guardian newspaper on Sunday, Abdelkarim issued a plea for the “international community to stand with [Syria] in this cultural battle” and to “unite to save Palmyra.”
“Syria’s heritage is part of humanity’s heritage. It cannot be divided among those who support the government and those who support the opposition.
He also said that initial evaluations seemed promising, but once the security situation stabilizes in the next few days, he and his team of 2,500 employees, including “exceptional local experts in engineering and archaeology,” will “breathe new life into Palmyra."
The significance of the Syrian victory over Islamic State, which coincided with Syria’s Christian population celebrating Easter, was not lost on the government in the capital, Damascus, where officials were quick to invoke heavy symbolism for the occasion.
Assad's Twitter account sent out a “glorious Easter salute to all Syrians” from a Palmyra “baptized in the blood of the men of the Syrian Arab Army."
In the wake of the Brussels terror attacks, other Syrian government officials painted this as part of the Assad government's fight against global terrorism, conflating the Islamic State and the Syrian opposition in the process.
"The victory in Palmyra… is proof of the correctness of our position against terror since the beginning, which some tried to depict as a crisis in Syria, [while] it is in truth an attack on Syria,” said Syrian Information Minister Omran Al-Zoubi in a phone interview with Syrian state TV from the Damascus.
The Syrian government has long insisted that the civil war, which began as a series of mostly peaceful protests against Assad’s rule, was the work of terrorists, egged on by Syria’s enemies in the West and the region.
In September, with Assad’s forces on the verge of collapse, Russian President Vladimir Putin initiated a large-scale air campaign purportedly against Islamic State. Although the scale of the campaign has since been reduced, Russian troops continue to play a vital role in combat operations throughout the country – a fact Putin reiterated once again Sunday in a congratulatory phone call to Assad, according to SANA.
Beyond Palmyra, the offensive’s success opens up access to strategically important areas in the country’s east, including parts of Deir Al-Zor and Raqqa, provinces still largely under the control of Islamic State.
Later on Sunday, the Observatory reported that government troops had begun their offensive on Al-Qaryatayn, a Christian-dominated town in central Homs province that had also fallen to Islamic State.
Bulos is a special correspondent.