BEIRUT: Islamic state activists took over the former city of Palmyra on Sunday after fighting after a year of setbacks in Syria and Iraq.
By winning Palmyra, the extremist group seemed to take advantage of the Syrian and Russian concerns of Aleppo, believing that its attack coincided with a major government offensive to capture the remaining remaining opposition areas in the northern city.
Palmyra, with its 2,000-year-old ruins, has an essentially symbolic significance in the wider civil war, although its location in central Syria also gives it a certain strategic importance.
Islamic state activists re-entered the city on Saturday for the first time since they were deported by Syrian and Russian forces in the midst of much fanfare nine months ago. The first major victory of the government against the Islamic state group in the historic city gave Damascus the chance to try to position itself within the framework of the global campaign against terrorism.
The militants had spent 10 months in Palmyra, during which they blew up a number of temples and caused further destruction – cutting heads of statues and partially damaging two temples and famous bow.
Maamoun Abdulkarim, head of antiquities and museums in Syria, said his department had transferred the contents of the museum from Palmyra to Damascus but was still worried about the security of the ruins of the SI militants.
“I fear they will no longer be avengers,” Abdulkarim told the Associated Press.
Palmyra was an important tourist attraction before the Syrian civil war began in 2011.
Sunday’s takeover took place hours after government troops and Russian air raids pushed the group out of the city’s perimeter. The SI militants then regrouped and attacked multiple sides, forcing the government troops to retreat.
The activists went door-to-door, in search of forces remaining loyal to President Bashar Assad, opposition activists said in the city.
Homs Provincial Governor Talal Barazi told the Pan-Mayan news channel Mayadeen that the SI attack on Palmyra is a “desperate” response to the recent military victories of the Syrian government.
Dozens of Syrian soldiers were reportedly killed in fighting around Palmyra in recent days. While a distraction from the battle for Aleppo, it is unlikely to affect the final thrust of the government on the last rebel-held neighborhoods in the northern city. On Sunday evening, there was no sign that the army was transferring significant resources from Aleppo.
The government and its allies reportedly mobilized some 40,000 fighters for Aleppo.
“I do not think that the regime withdraws the forces of Aleppo in Palmyra and risks losing Aleppo,” said Rami Abdurrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, opposition. “I think that the priority of the regime is now to finally end the battle of Aleppo before the end of the month. As for Palmyra, the entire international community will fight against IS.”
Last year, IS suffered defeats in Syria and Iraq, losing several cities it had captured in 2014.
It is now attacked in Mosul, the second largest city in Iraq and the last major urban center it controls in the country. Since the Mosul offensive began nearly two months ago, Iraqi and US coalition forces have killed or seriously injured more than 2,000 SI fighters, said Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, the US commander In Iraq. He made his remarks at a press conference with US Secretary of Defense Ash Carter at Qayara Air Force Base in Iraq.
On Saturday, Carter announced that he would send 200 more troops to Syria to train and advise local fighters fighting the SI. There are already 300 American soldiers authorized for the Syrian effort and some 5,000 in Iraq.
A Syrian force led by the Kurds, supported by the United States, is also pushing towards Raqqa, the de facto capital of the group in Syria, from the north. Meanwhile, Turkey supports Syrian opposition fighters who have reached the outskirts of al-Bab, the stronghold of IS in northern Syria.
By going to Palmyra, IS chose a soft target to demonstrate that it retains the ability to carry out large attacks despite its battlefield losses.
Mohammed Hassan al-Homsi, who heads the Palmyra News Network, said the SI was heading towards northern Syria, where Turkey and the international anti-IS coalition have focused their fighting. Activists look no further.