ISIL in full control of Syria’s historic city of Palmyra
BEIRUT // ISIL militants seized full control of the Syrian city of Palmyra on Thursday, putting it in control of a strategic crossroads of key routes leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq.
The assault on the city is part of a westward advance by ISIL that adds to pressure on Syrian president Bashar Al Assad’s overstretched army and pro-government militia, which have also recently lost ground to rebels groups in the north-west and south.
Capturing the city gives ISIL a military advantage because it is home to modern army installations and situated on a desert motorway linking government-held Damascus and Homs with Syria’s mainly rebel-held east.
“Palmyra is very strategically situated and can now be used as a launching pad for further territorial pushes towards Homs and Damascus,” said Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
The victory also “reinforces ISIL’s position as the single opposition group that controls the most territory in Syria,” he said.
By taking Palmyra, ISIL controls “more than 95,000 square kilometres in Syria, which is 50 per cent of the country’s territory”, acording to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group.
The extremist group dominates the provinces of Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, where it has established its capital, and has a strong presence in Hasakeh, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.
ISIL said in a statement posted by followers on Twitter on Thursday it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military bases, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from the Syrian military and allied forces.
The extremist group has destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.
The UN cultural agency Unesco describes the site as a historical crossroads between the Roman Empire, India, China and ancient Persia and a testament to the world’s diverse heritage.
“We may have different beliefs ... different views, but we have to protect such incredible vestiges of human history,” Unesco Director General Irina Bokova said.
The Observatory founder, Rami Abdulrahman, said ISIL fighters had entered the historical sites by early on Thursday but there were no immediate reports of destruction.
“This is the fall of a civilisation,” Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim said. “Human, civilised society has lost the battle against barbarism.”
Al Azhar, the centre of Islamic learning in Egypt, called on the world to protect Palmyra, saying the destruction or looting of cultural heritage was religiously forbidden.
Clashes in the Palmyra area since Wednesday killed at least 100 pro-government fighters, said Mr Abdulrahman.
Syrian state media said pro-government National Defense Forces had evacuated civilians before withdrawing.
The European Union’s foreign policy chief expressed fears that thousands of people in Palmyra were at risk as well as the cultural sites.
“Mass killings and deliberate destruction of archaeological and cultural heritage in Syria and Iraq amount to a war crime,” Federica Mogherini said.
Although ISIL has seized large chunks of Syria, the areas it holds are mostly sparsely inhabited. Syria’s main cities, including the capital Damascus, are located on its western flank along the border with Lebanon and the coastline.
Meanwhile, at least 40 rebels were killed as a regime air raid on their base in the northern city of Aleppo triggered a huge explosion on Thursday, the Observatory reported.
The rebels had shells stored at the base, which magnified the blast.
One person was also killed when mortar rounds fell near the Russian embassy in Damascus, in the second such attack this week.
A mortar attack on the Russian embassy on Tuesday had caused property damage but no casualties.
Russia’s foreign ministry said the source of Tuesday’s mortar fire “seemed to come from the Jobar area, which is under the control of illegitimate armed groups”.
Moscow is a key ally of Mr Al Assad.
* Reuters and Agence France-Presse