The Syrian city of Palmyra has fallen back into the control of the Islamic State, according to a recent report from Reuters. The group’s offensive had briefly been set back by Russian aerial bombardment, but the renewed assault left Islamic State fighters in control of the city as of Sunday morning. Fighting in and around the city was, however, ongoing.
According to Russian news sources cited by Reuters, as many as 4,000 IS militant fighters converged on Palmyra, which had been under the group’s control until government forces retook it earlier this year. Russian air support, which played an important role in the original government effort to regain control of Palmyra, was able to slow the advance of the fighters into the city, but was not sufficient to hold off the assault. According to the same Russian news outlets, some 300 IS militants were killed in air strikes during the most recent battle for the city.
During the Islamic State’s original occupation of Palmyra beginning in early 2015, the group destroyed many of the more notable ruins and archaeological relics within the ancient city. Much like the demolition of major Assyrian archaeological sites, the damage done to Roman-era ruins in Palmyra drew international criticism. In addition to the destruction of the sites themselves, IS also executed the city’s leading archaeologist because of his attempts to protect the antiquities and ruins of Palmyra.
According to a report on the ground situation by The Wall Street Journal, Syrian government forces that had been tasked with defending Palmyra had retreated from the city in the wake of the IS assault. The troops that remained in the area are currently preparing for a counteroffensive to displace the militants. Along with the government forces, most of the civilians still living in Palmyra had been evacuated in advance of the arrival of Islamic State forces. The advance of the terrorist group back into Palmyra also forced the government troops in and around the city to destroy arms and ammunition depots nearby in order to deny useful supplies to the IS fighters. Despite these efforts, a statement issued by Islamic State claimed that the group’s fighters had secured as many as 14 tanks and 16 pieces of heavy artillery from munitions sites around Palmyra.
As the fighting for Palmyra continues, Syrian government forces and Russian diplomats are seeking a swift end to the battle in Aleppo, where anti-government rebels still hold small areas of the city. Government troops were diverted from Aleppo in an attempt to hold defensive positions in Palmyra earlier in the weekend. A proposed deal to achieve a rapid conclusion to the fighting there has yet to be formally accepted by the rebels. Under the terms of this deal, rebel troops would be given the opportunity to leave Aleppo peacefully. Transport would be provided to rebel soldiers to destinations of their choosing. It is not yet clear if any or all of the rebel groups currently fighting inside of Aleppo will accept the proposed solution. If the battle for Aleppo can be settled, Syrian government forces could be redirected to the effort to secure control of Palmyra once again.
Even if the Islamic State militants currently in possession of Palmyra can be driven from the city, it is expected that the area will face long-term insurgencies and fighting spurred by the terrorist group. The renewed IS assault on Palmyra is likely an attempt to divert attention and troops from the areas where the group is currently being pressured by various military units. In Syria, IS faces an attack on its self-proclaimed capital in the city of Raqqah, while in Iraq the group’s largest stronghold, Mosul, is also being advanced upon. Though it would have little effect on the conflict in Iraq, a renewed effort on the part of the Syrian government against Palmyra would likely relieve Raqqah of some of the pressure being put upon it.
[Featured Image by Uncredited/AP Images]