Syrian forces make further gains in attempt to wrest Palmyra from Isis – Martin Chulov/The Guardian
Backed by Russian airstrikes, Syrian army makes significant gains in bid to retake world-renowned archeological site
Islamic State fighters have laid mines and booby traps throughout the ancient ruins of Palmyra to counter the most concerted push yet by Syrian forces to retake the area it lost 10 months ago in one of the most emblematic moments of the war.
Syrian officials confirmed tanks and soldiers had advanced to within 500 metres of the centre of Tadmur City, adjoining the world-renowned archeological site, which became one of the terror group’s most-prized captures after a one-week siege last May.
The push is being heavily backed by Russian jets, which have launched more than 140 airstrikes in the area over the past week, as well as Russian special forces on the ground. Iran-backed troops are also understood to be playing a role, although in smaller numbers than on other frontlines.
The advance is being hailed as highly symbolic for Syrian forces, which have relied heavily on Russia and Iran to claw back losses suffered over the past four years against opposition rebel groups and Isis extremists.
The loss of Palmyra was seen as being emblematic of the Syrian military’s inability to safeguard the country without help. Its fall created dread in the capital, Damascus, and further damaged morale throughout the battle-fatigued national army.
Until the 2011 popular insurrection, the Unesco-listed world heritage site had been Syria’s most popular tourism destination and was widely regarded as one most culturally important centres of the ancient world.
Soon after seizing Palmyra, Isis destroyed at least three of its temples and used an ancient Roman amphitheatre to stage executions of alleged regime collaborators. The group also beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, the site’s former antiquities director, after he reportedly refused to disclose the location of hidden artefacts.
However, Isis now appear increasingly isolated with two of its supply lines to the west severed by the regime advance. Syrian forces are also on the move in deserts to the east of Palmyra, which Isis has regularly used to channel personnel and equipment.
The regime advance was launched earlier this month and after slow progress has made significant gains in the past 48 hours.
Syrian officials acknowledged that Isis regularly mines areas from which it is forced to withdraw and is considered almost certain to have done the same in Palmyra. Of most concern is whether the group has rigged ancient Roman columns and other remaining significant archeological areas. Officials conceded that the destruction of heritage-listed sites that they were trying to save may end up being a pyrrhic victory.
Renewed pressure on Isis comes three days after the attacks in Brussels, which are believed to have been inspired by the terror group’s main stronghold in Raqqa.
Haidar al-Abadi, the prime minister of Iraq, announced on Thursday that the country’s forces had started a long-anticipated operation to recapture Mosul, Iraq’s second city. The movement of two Iraqi brigades, roughly 4,000 men trained by US forces in Anbar province, north-east of the city is an advance guard not capable of meaningful gains without significant reinforcements.
US and Kurdish war planners estimate that at least three divisions, roughly 50,000 soldiers, will be needed to take Mosul. They believe that operation would take at least three months and could not realistically be launched until autumn.
Iraqi troops are reported to have captured four villages near Makhmur, north of Mosul. The first US base to be re-established in Iraq since US forces left the country five years ago is in the same area.