Syrian government forces have made great strides towards retaking the ancient city of Palmyra, which has been held by Islamic State militants since May. The Syrian troops have been on the offensive for days and have had major backing from Russian forces that have been delivering air strikes against IS militants in the area.
NPR reported on Thursday that the conflict is being monitored by, Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, who are saying that Syrian troops have finally pushed through into the southwest corner of the city. Rami Abdel Rahman, director for the Observatory, said that the Syrian advance into the city was taking a long time because mines placed by retreating IS forces had to be dealt with before troops could be fully sent in.
Shortly before the assault on Palmyra began, IS warned civilians in the city to flee. While most of Palmyra’s residents left when IS took the city in 2015, some remained in the town. Now the last remnants of Palmyra’s citizens are fleeing for cities like Raqqa or Deir Ezzor.
Famed for its archaeological value and ancient Roman ruins, Palmyra has long been an important tourist destination for Syria. The site, which was known to attract tens of thousands of visitors a year, was nicknamed the “bride of the desert” by Syrians.
Since taking the city in May, IS has had a habit of destroying many of the site’s Roman era artifacts. Two of the greatest losses were the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph. IS has also used the site as a showcase for some of their brutal executions, often killing men accused of helping the Syrian regime.
IS was even willing to kill civilians at the site. Back in August 2015 the radical group beheaded Khaled al-Assad an 81-year-old archaeologist much renowned for his knowledge of Palmyra history. Soon after his death, IS used explosives to demolish Baal Shamin temple which dated back to the first-century.
The Washington Post reported that on taking Palmyra, one of the first buildings destroyed by IS was the Tadmor prison. The prison had an infamous history, as thousands of Syria’s opponents were imprisoned and tortured there in the 1980s.
Retaking Palmyra will understandably have huge symbolic value for Syria’s regime. According to a report by the Associated Press, the Syrian forces are very hopeful and expect to soon retake the city.
“We might witness in the next 48 hours an overwhelming victory in Palmyra,” Gov. Talal Barazi told The Associated Press. He added: “the army is advancing in a precise and organized way to protect what is possible of monuments and archaeological sites.”