Islamic state has seized full control of both ancient and modern Palmyra in central Syria, days after the capture of a provincial capital in neighbouring Iraq, leading to speculation that momentum is building for the radical group. The twin successes pile massive pressure on neighbouring Damascus and Baghdad, but also doubt on the US strategy to rely nearly exclusively on airstrikes to quell the Sunni Muslim movement, which is an offshoot of al Qaeda.
The news comes from a statement posted by followers of Islamic State on twitter, claiming full charge of Palmyra, including its military installations, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from Syrian-Allied forces.
Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State now controls more than half of Syrian territory following over four years of civil war against the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
Following past destruction of antiquities and monuments across Iraq, there are fears that it might now devastate Palmyra, an ancient World Heritage site home of many Roman-era ruins, among these are very well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.
“This is the fall of a civilisation,” Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told Reuters by telephone on Thursday.
“Human, civilised society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope”
Clashes in the area following the capture of Palmyra have led to the deaths of at least 100 pro-government fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which bases its information on a network of trusted sources on the ground. Islamic state said retreating pro-government forces left behind many dead, but gave no precise figures.
The assault on the city, part of a westward advance by Islamic State is adding immence pressure on Assad’s overstretched army and pro-govt. militia, which are losing ground in the northwest and south. As well as fighters loyal to the movement have consolidated their grip on Sirte in Libya, hometown of the late dictator Mummar Gaddafi, extending their reach in the region.
But all is not lost, Iraqi forces said on Thursday that they have thwarted a third attempt by Islamic State militants to break through their defensive lines east of Ramadi overnight, exchanging mortar and sniper fire with insurgents across the new frontline in Husaiba al Sharqiya, about halfway between Ramadi and a base where a counter-offensive to retake the city is being prepared.
The United Sates plans to deliver 1,00 anti-tank weapons to Iraq in june to combat suicide bombings like those that helped the Islamic group take Ramadi, a senior U.S. State Department official said on Thursday, following the order by the Iraq government for Shi’ite militia (most of which have very close ties to Iran) to join the battle to retake Ramadi, raising fears of renewed sectarian strife in the country.
The militants in Ramadi are seeking to consolidate their gains in the surrounding province of Anbar by pushing east towards the Habbaniya base where Iraqi security forces and Shi’ite paramilitaries are massing.
Habbaniya is one of the only few remaining pockets of government-held territory in Anbar, and lies between Ramadi and the town of Falluja, which has been controlled by Islamic State for more than a year. It is suspected that the militants are looking to join up the two towns and overrun the remaining government holdouts, which wouldn’t be as much as a fear, except for the fact that Palmyra is home to modern military installations and situated on a desert highway, causing great concern for the Pro-military fighters dealing with a lack of ground support from NATO, and surrounding countries battling the Islamic State.