Syrian government forces pushed into the ancient town of Palmyra, where Islamic State militants appeared on the verge of collapse yesterday, while in Iraq, a military spokesman announced the start of a long-awaited operation to recapture the IS-held northern city of Mosul.
The extremist group has been losing ground in Syria and Iraq for months under a stepped-up campaign of US-led and Russian airstrikes, as well as ground assaults by multiple forces in each country.
The army is advancing in a precise and organised way to protect what is possible of monuments and archaeological sitesTalal Barazi
The retaking of Palmyra – a Unesco world heritage site whose fall to the militants last May sent shock waves through archaeological circles and beyond – would be a significant victory for the Syrian government. But the operation to unseat the group in Mosul, Iraq’s second-largest city, is likely to take much longer and be far more difficult.
The advance on Palmyra came after government forces, backed by Russian airstrikes, managed to capture several hills and high ground around the town this week.
Syrian state TV broadcast footage of its reporter, embedded with the Syrian military, speaking live from the entrance of Palmyra and saying that fighting was concentrated near the famed archaeological site on the southwestern edge of the town.
The fall of Palmyra to IS militants last year had raised concerns worldwide, and the destruction the extremists subsequently embarked upon sparked alarm and made international headlines. It was also a big blow to the government of Syrian president Bashar Assad, whose forces pulled out with apparently little resistance.
By nightfall, intense fighting was still taking place on the outskirts. Turkey-based activist Osama al-Khatib, who is originally from Palmyra, denied that Syrian troops had entered the town, and said the video seen on Syrian state TV was three miles away.
Earlier in the day, governor Talal Barazi, from the nearby city of Homs said that the Syrian army was clearing roads leading into the town of mines and explosives.
“We might witness in the next 48 hours an overwhelming victory in Palmyra,” Barazi said, adding that “the army is advancing in a precise and organised way to protect what is possible of monuments and archaeological sites”.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Syrian troops and Shi’ite militiamen helping them on the ground were facing tough resistance from IS extremists as they try to penetrate the town’s limits.
The observatory, which monitors the Syrian conflict through a network of activists on the ground, said IS lost more than 200 militants since the government campaign to retake Palmyra began 17 days ago. It did not have figures for government losses.
The IS group instructed residents to leave the town on Wednesday. The town was mostly empty on Thursday, save for IS fighters who were reported to be mining homes ahead of the advancing army.
Many of those who left sought refuge in IS-controlled cities in the country’s north and east, including Deir el-Zour, which is also being contested between the extremist group and government forces, according to opposition media activists.
Affectionately known as the “bride of the desert,” Palmyra had attracted tens of thousands of tourists to Syria every year.