Tuesday 20 March 2018

Assad troops make gains in Aleppo but Isil militants retake Palmyra

A still from a video released by an Isil-affiliated news agency purports to show its fighters in front of silos at Palmyra Picture: Reuters
A still from a video released by an Isil-affiliated news agency purports to show its fighters in front of silos at Palmyra Picture: Reuters

Sara Ellizabeth Williams

Syrian regime forces made further advances into Aleppo yesterday, but retreated from the historic city of Palmyra despite support from Russian airstrikes overnight. Yesterday, the army pounded a shrinking rebel enclave in south-east Aleppo with artillery and airstrikes, seizing several neighbourhoods, a monitor said.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said that more than 10,000 people had fled the remaining rebel-held districts since midnight, heading for government-run west Aleppo and newly retaken areas in the city's north and centre. Meanwhile, Russian airstrikes overnight bolstered Syrian soldiers fighting off an Isil offensive in Palmyra.

But Isil militants launched a fresh offensive yesterday, recapturing all of the Unesco world heritage site after government forces pulled out. Within hours, Isil social media channels were flooded with photos of militants celebrating the win by handing out sweets in the group's self-declared capital in Raqqa. Observers and anti-regime activists said Palmyra's recapture showed President Assad and his allies were struggling to hold territory.

"The regime doesn't have enough manpower to hold Aleppo and Palmyra at the same time, so they gave Palmyra to Da'esh [Isil]," said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Observatory. "There is no way the Syrian regime is strong enough to hold both." Khaled Homsi, a former Palmyra local who now works as an activist from Turkey, said: "This is kind of like a game for the regime. The sense is that the regime isn't prioritising Tadmur right now," he said, using the Arabic term for Palmyra.

Analysts have previously predicted that Mr Assad would reach a saturation point where he could take no new territory without losing his grip on another, despite significant support from Russia. A senior pro-Damascus official told Reuters yesterday that Mr Assad had decided not to focus on Raqqa, Isil's de facto Syrian capital and the next target of the US-led anti-Isil coalition. 

"The regime forgot about Raqqa a long time ago and made it the responsibility of the Americans," the official said. Palmyra opposition activists said the militants were going door to door in the city, looking for remnants of government forces. State news agency SANA, quoting an unnamed military official, said that Isil received reinforcements from Raqqa, enabling it to attack with "large numbers" against military checkpoints around the city.

Backed by Russian air power, the Syrian government had recaptured Palmyra, home to towering 2,000-year-old ruins, amid great fanfare in March. But the militants had been steadily advancing in recent days while the government had been focused on a major offensive against rebels in the northern city of Aleppo.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights and the Palmyra Co-ordination group said Isil militants fought their way into the town in a multi-pronged assault, forcing government forces to retreat to the south. A map by the Observatory showed the areas in control of Isil to extend east, south and north of Palmyra, securing a number of strategic hills around the city and expanding the group's presence in rural Homs. Palmyra lies in Syria's largest province, Homs, which is mostly under government control.

Osama al-Khatib, of the activist-run Palmyra Co-ordination group which keeps in touch with residents in the city, said remaining government and allied troops were escaping from the southwestern edge of the city where the ancient ruins were. He said the few remaining families in the city were also attempting to escape. (© Daily Telegraph London)


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