Syrian Regime Forces Have Ended the Islamic State's Reign of Terror in Palmyra

The militants ruled the town with an iron fist, repurposing its iconic amphitheater as a stage for public executions and destroying ancient temples.
March 27, 2016, 1:35pm
Photo via SANA/EPA

Syrian troops surged into Palmyra on Sunday morning, dealing a blow to the Islamic State (IS) after a 10-month reign of terror in the ancient desert city.

"The armed forces and groups of the popular defense committees have fully taken control of Palmyra," an unnamed Syrian military official said on Sunday.

Palmyra's 2,000-year-old ruins and nearby modern town fell to the extremist group during a lightning offensive last May. It was a humiliating defeat for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whose forces either fled or were killed in the streets.

IS appears to have suffered unprecedented losses during the battle to keep the town. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, said at least 400 jihadists were killed.

"That's the heaviest losses that IS has sustained in a single battle since its creation," said Rami Abdel Rahman, who heads the Observatory. He said that 188 government-allied troops were also killed.

Related: The Islamic State Has Beheaded an 81-Year-Old Antiquities Scholar in Palymra

The militants ruled the town with an iron fist, repurposing its iconic amphitheater as a stage for public executions and meting out brutal punishments against residents who broke their strict laws. A Palmyra resident who recently escaped the city spoke of deep relief after 10 months of "'hell."

"People here have been scared for a long time. Now we see freedom on the horizon," he told VICE News, speaking on condition that his name be withheld.

But like several other residents interviewed in recent weeks, he spoke angrily about waiting for Assad's forces to retake the city. "We are asking why it took so long to send help? We spent months in fear, watching executions and conforming to the Islamic laws of foreigners."

'People here have been scared for a long time. Now we see freedom on the horizon.'

Although pro-government media outlets claimed for months that the Syrian army was on the verge of recapturing the city, it took the backing of Russian airstrikes and special forces, as well as troops from Lebanon's Hezbollah and a patchwork of Iran-backed militias, to bring victory.

"How many times did we cry for Palmyra? How many times did we feel despair? But we did not lose hope," Syria's antiquities chief, Mamoun Abdelkarim, told Reuters. "This is the end of the destruction in Palmyra."

Russian state television carried early glimpses of the town's ruination. Drone footage of the ancient city — once the most complete panorama to survive classical antiquity — showed rubble-strewn holes across the sprawling Greco-Roman site.

Drone footage, shot by the news channel Rossiya 24, shows the destruction in the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

IS has released several carefully staged videos showing the piece-by-piece destruction of Palmyra's most famous sites. Gone are the temples of Bel and Baalshamin, as well as the ancient city's towering arch and funeral columns.

Local residents also said that parts of the modern town have been leveled by heavy airstrikes. In a statement released last week, the Palmyra Revolution Committee, a group of local activists, said that at least 50 percent of the residential neighborhoods were badly damaged.

The group also accused Russian warplanes of using cluster munitions, weapons so dangerous to civilians that they have been banned by 118 countries.

Related: Photos Emerge of the Islamic State's Destruction of Palmyra Temple

As soldiers inched through the the town, reportedly clashing with the jihadists in several districts, the army said it would use the area as a "central base to broaden operations" against the extremist group in Deir ez-Zor and Raqqa, its most important strongholds in northeastern Syria.

The loss of the city is a significant blow to IS, which is now squeezed on battlefronts across Syria and Iraq, where it has failed to mount a successful major offensive in nearly nine months.

With the road linking Palmyra to Raqqa now under army control, IS fighters in the ancient town can only retreat east toward the Iraqi border.

Palmyra's remaining civilians were reportedly evacuated to other territories held by the extremist group, which still relies on funds raised through taxation and extortion of the populations it controls.

"I haven't heard a thing from my brother since I left," said the resident interviewed by VICE News. "It's like he's gone into a black hole."

The recapture of Palmyra will also buoy the Assad regime, which depicts itself as the only bulwark against Islamic extremism in Syria as the country's civil war enters its sixth year. According to one recent estimate, nearly half a million people have died in the conflict.

Follow Louisa Loveluck on Twitter: @leloveluck