The Islamic State has once again attacked the Syrian city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and according to several accounts, they have recaptured the city despite heavy Russian and Syrian aerial bombardment.
CNN reported on Monday that according to “Syrian government media, the ISIS media wing and a human rights monitor,” the Islamic State was once again in control of the ancient city it was ejected from eight months ago.
The human rights monitor in question is the London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which reported that “despite the ongoing air raids, IS retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city.”
This is not inconsistent with the official word from the Syrian government, which said, through state-run media, that over 4,000 ISIS militants attacked from “various directions” to overrun the city.
CNN’s report suggests the Syrian government’s focus on bringing about an endgame for rebels in the city of Aleppo gave the Islamic State an opportunity to attack Palmyra with troops from Deir Ezzor and Raqqa, the ISIS capital city.
“ISIS fighters had seized almost the entire city Saturday before Russian warplanes began an intense bombardment, forcing the militants to withdraw to orchards and towns on Palmyra’s outskirts,” CNN writes.
“In winning back Palmyra, the extremist group appeared to be taking advantage of the Syrian and Russian preoccupation with Aleppo, timing its attack to coincide with a major government offensive to capture the last remaining opposition-held neighborhoods in the northern city,” the Associated Press concurs.
“Palmyra, with its towering 2,000-year-old ruins, holds mostly symbolic meaning in the wider civil war, although its location in central Syria also gives it some strategic significance,” the AP adds, noting that the ejection of ISIS from Palmyra last year was seen as a major victory for Damascus.
Naturally, there are renewed concerns that Islamic State jihadis will vandalize the historic ruins of Palmyra. The Associated Press quotes Syrian antiquities official Maamoun Abdulkarim saying the contents of Palmyra’s museum have been transferred to Damascus for safekeeping, but he adds that he fears ISIS will be “more vengeful” during their second occupation of the city.
Al-Arabiya ominously reports that “after entering Palmyra, ISIS detained many of the city’s residents and led them to unknown locations.”
More bad news from Al-Arabiya: “On December 8, ISIS seized control of al-Mahr oilfield, Jazal, Jahr, Qasr al-Hallabat and Heyal Mountains in the eastern countryside of Homs following violent clashes with regime forces.”
The Associated Press quotes Rami Abdurrahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights saying he doubts the Assad regime will shift forces from Aleppo to retake Palmyra: “I think the regime’s priority now is to finish the battle for Aleppo before the end of the month for sure. As for Palmyra, the whole international community would stand by it against [the Islamic State].”
Russia’s RT.com quotes the Russian Ministry of Defense saying that the Islamic State’s recapture of Palmyra was evidence that “terrorists should not be given a chance to regroup,” and charging that ISIS militants took advantage of Russia’s unwillingness to bomb residential districts in the city.
Defense Ministry spokesman Major General Igor Konashenkov blamed the U.S.-led coalition for making the Palmyra attack possible by easing up the pressure on the Islamic State’s capital of Raqqa.
“Seizing on the suspension of active military action near Al-Raqqah till spring by the US and international coalition, Islamic State devoted considerable forces to storm Palmyra,” Konashenkov asserted. “It is obvious that the terrorists concentrated near Palmyra were sure that the military action in Al-Raqqah would not renew.”
Others went even further and implied that the United States actually orchestrated the ISIS attack on Palmyra because they want to distract Russia and Syria from finishing off the rebels in Aleppo and make Syrian President Bashar Assad look like an inept battlefield leader:
[Russian Foreign Minister Sergey] Lavrov said the IS fighters appear to have come to Palmyra from Mosul, where the offensive against them has intensified, and that they have apparently moved through routes “patrolled” by the US-led coalition’s aviation, which “makes one think that the whole [situation] has been orchestrated.”
“I hope I’m wrong,” Lavrov added, however.
“What is actually interesting is that the American-led coalition, which has very powerful surveillance tools, apparently failed to pick up 4,000 ISIS jihadists making their way to Palmyra with all their equipment, trucks and everything,” former UK ambassador to Syria Peter Ford told RT, adding that Washington and its allies “didn’t lift a finger to try to stop [the IS offensive] happening.”
“I don’t think you have to be a genius to work out that there are plans afoot to decamp the ISIS rebels from Mosul into eastern Syria, and this will play into the American narrative that Assad can’t control the countryside in Syria and that he’s not a good ally in the fight against ISIS,” Ford said.
Ford went on to predict that once Aleppo falls to the Syrian regime, it can focus its full attention on fighting ISIS on Palmyra. This is another way of stating the perpetual talking point from Moscow and Damascus that the U.S. and its allies should stop supporting rebel forces in Syria and team up with Assad and his patrons to wipe out the Islamic State.