After a weeks-long offensive, the Syrian army, backed by Russian air support, has recaptured the ancient town of Palmyra from the so-called Islamic State (IS) group. The loss of the town is a major setback for the jihadists who captured it in May 2015 amid an outcry of international condemnation and concern regarding the status of the city’s ancient temples and buildings.
In the fierce fighting, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitoring group, said 400 Islamic State fighters were killed in the battle for Palmyra.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad said having Palmyra back in government hands was a “significant achievement” and said it provided “new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy followed by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.”
“The effectiveness of this strategy is further highlighted especially as opposed to the US-led coalition involving more than sixty countries and its lack of seriousness in fighting terrorism and the very little it has achieved since its establishment one and a half years ago,” Assad said on Sunday.
“Palmyra city is now fully cleared of ISIS terrorists after the army established complete control over all its parts, including the archaeological site and the airport,” according to a report by the state-run SANA news agency.
Russian President Vladamir Putin called al-Assad on Sunday to congratulate the Syrian leader on the Palmyra operation.
During its control of Palmyra, Islamic State destroyed the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph and other ancient buildings. The group claims that such structures are idolatrous and must be destroyed.
The Director General of Antiquities and Museums Directorate vowed to rebuild Palmyra.
“The general and known viewpoint prefers not to re-build antiquities but in the case of Palmyra it is different …We seek to restore the devastated temples in a way that preserves its historical identity depending on the original stones remaining in the site or bringing new identical ones from the city’s quarry,” Maamoun Abdulkarim said.
Before the civil war started in 2011, it is believed that 150,000 tourists visited the ruins every year.
The operation to recapture Palmyra is seen as a strategic victory for Assad as he tries to show the international community that he is serious on fighting terrorism within the country. The Syrian opposition, many elements of whom Assad has described as terrorists, rejected that story line.
“The government wants through this operation to win the favor of Western nations by fighting against terrorism, while obscuring its responsibility as providing the reasons for the spread of terror,” according to Khaled Nasser, a member of the opposition coalition that has been negotiating with the government in Geneva.
Peace talks are currently taking place in Switzerland on the back of the cessation of hositalities that was agreed to last month. Talks are expected to resume in April..