Sunday, March 27, 2016 6:22 pm
Syrian government forces backed by heavy Russian air support drove Islamic State out of Palmyra on Sunday, inflicting what the army called a mortal blow to militants who seized the city last year and dynamited its ancient temples.
The loss of Palmyra represents one of the biggest setbacks for the ultra-hardline Islamist group since it declared a caliphate in 2014 across large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The army general command said that its forces took over the city with support from Russian and Syrian air strikes, opening up the huge expanse of desert leading east to the Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.
Palmyra would become “a launchpad to expand military operations” against the group in those two provinces, it said, promising to “tighten the noose on the terrorist group and cut supply routes … ahead of their complete recapture”.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes continued on the eastern edge of Palmyra, around the prison and airport, but the bulk of the Islamic State force had withdrawn and retreated east, leaving the city under President Bashar al-Assad’s control.
Syrian state-run television broadcast from inside the city, showing empty streets and badly damaged buildings.
It quoted a military source saying Syrian and Russian jets were targeting Islamic State fighters as they fled, hitting dozens of vehicles on the roads leading east from the city.
Russia’s intervention in September turned the tide of Syria’s five-year conflict in Assad’s favor. Despite its declared withdrawal of most military forces two weeks ago, Russian jets and helicopters carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra as the army pushed into the city.
“This achievement represents a mortal blow to the terrorist organization and lays the foundation for a great collapse in the morale of its mercenaries and the beginning of its defeat,” the army command statement said.
In a pointed message to the United States, which has led a separate Western and Arab coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq since 2014, the military command said its gains showed that the army “and its friends” were the only force able to uproot terrorism.