Islamic State fighters appeared close to retaking Palmyra, Syria, on Saturday, just nine months after Syrian government forces drove them from the desert city, where they had terrorized residents and blown up irreplaceable ancient monuments.
Residents said Islamic State militants were battling soldiers in the city’s center, after retaking outlying oil fields and nearly encircling the city over the past week as the government and its allies were focused on a pivotal battle in Aleppo, further north.
Losing Palmyra for a second time would be a major symbolic and military blow for the Syrian government, which boasted about its reconquest of the city in March, after 10 months of Islamic State rule.
Russia, the government’s main ally, which had helped with air support and advisers, flew in an orchestra to play a victory concert in Palmyra’s ancient amphitheater that month.
A victory for the Islamic State, however, is not necessarily a major turning point for the group. The Islamic State is losing ground and on its heels. Early this week, its strategic stronghold in Surt, Libya, fell to American-backed fighters. Taking Palmyra, a lightly fortified city, while the Syrian government’s attention was elsewhere was a tactically easy move, which has grabbed headlines and boosted the militants’ morale.
The Russians also established a small base in the city, but residents said all Russian troops had pulled out in recent days as the militants approached. Local activists also said that Russian warplanes had pounded Palmyra after the Islamic State captured much of it. Tass, a Russian state news agency, reported that “reinforcements have been relocated to repel Islamic State’s attack from the south.” The claim could not be independently verified.
The battle for Palmyra comes as the government has been scoring its most important victories in years in Aleppo, once Syria’s largest city.
The army and allied militias there have retaken most of the eastern half of the city. East Aleppo has been held for four years by rebels opposed to President Bashar al-Assad.
Another battle, also unfolding on Saturday, may further complicate the government’s war strategy. A rebel coalition backed by Turkey made advances against the Islamic State, also known as ISIS or ISIL, in the city of Al Bab in northern Aleppo Province, an area that the Syrian government hoped to conquer from the group.
Residents were in a state of fear and anxiety, according to activists from the Local Coordination Committee of Palmyra, a group that opposes both Mr. Assad’s government and the Islamic State’s self-described caliphate.
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SOURCE: NY Times, Anne Barnard