Palmyra (Syria) (AFP) – Syrian troops backed by Russian ground and air forces on Saturday pushed deeper into the Islamic State group stronghold of Palmyra, as Washington considered boosting its anti-jihadist fight in neighbouring Iraq.
IS, behind a string of attacks in the West including this week’s Brussels bombings, is under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi military offensives to retake two key bastions in its self-proclaimed “caliphate”.
Pro-government Syrian forces battled IS fighters Saturday in northern and western neighbourhoods of Palmyra, a strategically located ancient desert city, under the cover of Russian and Syrian artillery fire.
In a boost to their campaign, regime forces captured the town of Al-Amiriyah on the northern outskirts of Palmyra.
A Syrian military source told AFP that Al-Amiriyah was “Daesh’s gateway into the city,” using an Arabic acronym for IS.
An AFP journalist on a western hilltop overlooking Palmyra saw nearby artillery operated by Russian and Syrian troops firing on IS positions in the city.
The military source said Russia was “widely involved in the battle for Palmyra, whether in fighting directly on the ground, with their planes, or by intercepting communication” among IS fighters.
Despite a major drawdown last week, Russian warplanes have continued their bombing campaign around Palmyra, conducting more than 150 air strikes in recent days.
But with pro-government forces now engaged in street battles with the jihadists, raids have markedly decreased.
“This is because the fighting before was in the hilltops, whereas city fighting doesn’t need heavy air power,” the source said.
“Instead, it needs heavy artillery power — and that’s what we are noticing now whether it’s from the Russians or from the Syrian army.”
– ‘Fiercest offensive’ –
IS overran the Palmyra ruins and adjacent modern city in May 2015, sparking a global outcry and fears for the fate of the UNESCO world heritage site known as the “Pearl of the Desert”.
The group has since blown up UNESCO-listed temples and looted relics that dated back thousands of years.
Government forces began their large-scale offensive to retake Palmyra earlier this month, but Saturday marked the most significant advance yet.
“This is the fiercest offensive in the last three weeks,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which monitors the war.
“Regime forces have seized two neighbourhoods in the city’s west and northwest in a simultaneous push,” he told AFP.
IS was putting up a fight, however, with 10 government forces killed overnight in a car bomb west of the city, Abdel Rahman said.
The military source on the outskirts of Palmyra told AFP that he expected “the old city and the edges of Palmyra to be mined with explosives.”
He said the use of bombs and roadside mines had complicated the battle for the city’s perimeter.
The government’s fresh advance on Saturday builds on gains made by pro-regime forces in the city’s southwestern outskirts in recent days.
State news agency SANA reported that Syria’s armed forces had “launched several operations at dawn this morning (Saturday) towards the Gardens District south of the city.”
It said pro-government forces were also fighting IS in Palmyra’s airport, to the city’s east.
– First major defeat? –
If Syrian forces take the city, “it will be the first major defeat of Daesh by the Syrian army,” the military source said.
“The army will have regained confidence and morale, and will have prepared itself for the next expected battle in Raqa.”
The northern city of Raqa is the de facto capital of IS’s self-styled “caliphate” across swathes of territory in Syria and neighbouring Iraq.
The Pentagon on Friday said it will propose boosting the US military presence in Iraq to help government forces there battling IS.
“We have a series of recommendations that we will discuss with the president in the coming weeks to further enable our support for the Iraqi security forces,” said General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“(Defence Secretary Ashton Carter) and I both believe that there will be an increase in US forces in Iraq in coming weeks, but that decision hasn’t been made,” Dunford said.
The recommendations will include ways that the US can “enable” Iraqi forces in their efforts to recapture Mosul, the largest urban centre in IS’s territory — an operation that’s expected to be long and difficult.