Newsdeck

Syria troops press advance after blow to IS in Palmyra

By AFP 29 March 2016

by Maher Al Mounes with Maya Gebeily in Beirut Syrian forces pressed their offensive against the Islamic State group on Monday, the day after seizing control of the ancient city of Palmyra in a major blow for the jihadists.

Regime troops pushed on towards Deir Ezzor province, an IS bastion, the day after wresting control of the desert ruins with the help of Russian air strikes.

Analysts said the government’s seizure of Palmyra was the biggest blow so far in the war against IS and a major coup both for Damascus and Moscow.

Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hailed the victory as “fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism”.

IS destroyed more than a dozen tombs and temples during its 10-month occupation of the UNESCO World Heritage site, known as the “Pearl of the Desert”.

Syria’s antiquities chief said the monuments could be restored in five years, although a UN expert cast doubt on the time-frame.

Inside the city, army sappers worked to defuse bombs and mines planted by IS before they retreated on Monday. One soldier said more than 50 had been disarmed.

Outside, Syria’s military turned their attention to other IS-held towns as they pushed towards Raqa, the jihadists’ de facto capital.

“The army was concentrated around Al-Qaryatain, and today the military operations began there,” said a military source in Palmyra.

“That is the next goal for the Syrian army. They also have their eyes on Sukhnah,” he added, referring to a town northeast of Palmyra.

The United States cautiously welcomed the victory for Assad, but said warned against allowing him to expand his “ability to tyrannize the Syrian people”.

– 5 years to rebuild –

Concern has been mounting for the ancient city since IS overran it in May 2015 and began a campaign to destroy tombs and shrines it considers idolatrous.

In September, they demolished the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and a month later blew up the Arch of Triumph, from around 200 AD.

The jihadists also used Palmyra’s ancient theatre as a venue for public executions and murdered the city’s 82-year-old former antiquities chief, Khaled al-Assaad.

Syria’s head of antiquities, Maamoun Abdulkarim, told AFP that 80 percent of the site was still “in good shape” and the ancient ruins could be restored in five years with UNESCO’s help.

But UN expert Annie Sartre-Fauriat said she was “very doubtful” that would be possible.

“Everyone is excited because Palmyra has been ‘liberated’, but we should not forget everything that has been destroyed,” said Sartre-Fauriat, who belongs to a group of experts on Syrian heritage set up by UNESCO in 2013.

Analysts said losing Palmyra was a major setback for IS, which has come under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi forces set on breaking apart its self-proclaimed “caliphate”.

“The past week exemplifies the future of the Islamic State: relentless internal setbacks amid persistent external attacks,” said the US-based Soufan Group.

Syria expert Thomas Pierret said the loss of Palmyra showed IS was “clearly weaker than in the past”, but warned the jihadists will likely fight harder to keep control of Raqa and Deir Ezzor.

– Russia in focus –

US Secretary of State John Kerry vowed to pile more pressure on IS after meeting with Turkey’s Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Washington.

But experts say Russia’s role in Palmyra has also left the West scrambling to figure out Putin’s game plan.

His announcement this month that Russia was withdrawing troops from Syria was greeted with much fanfare, but analysts said only 10-25 percent of forces have left since then.

Moscow also openly admitted for the first time since it launched it operations in Syria last September that it has special forces on the ground as part of the offensive.

“All the talk in the West that Russia was going to ditch Assad was nonsense,” said Pavel Felgengauer, a Russian military analyst.

“We are not planning to abandon him now. Russia wants Assad to stay in power and the goal is to give him a chance to win the civil war.”

Assad’s other key ally, Iran, has also hailed the recapture of Palmyra and pledged its continued financial and military assistance.

Hadi al-Bahra of the opposition National Coalition said the regime should have stopped IS from taking Palmyra to begin with.

“From the start, the regime’s strategy was to allow the threat posed by Daesh to grow, in order to tell the West that either Daesh or Assad would prevail.”

burs/ser/cah/as

© 1994-2016 Agence France-Presse

Gallery

Watch Pauli van Wyk’s Cat Play The Piano Here!

No, not really. But now that we have your attention, we wanted to tell you a little bit about what happened at SARS.

Tom Moyane and his cronies bequeathed South Africa with a R48-billion tax shortfall, as of February 2018. It's the only thing that grew under Moyane's tenure... the year before, the hole had been R30.7-billion. And to fund those shortfalls, you know who has to cough up? You - the South African taxpayer.

It was the sterling work of a team of investigative journalists, Scorpio’s Pauli van Wyk and Marianne Thamm along with our great friends at amaBhungane, that caused the SARS capturers to be finally flushed out of the system. Moyane, Makwakwa… the lot of them... gone.

But our job is not yet done. We need more readers to become Maverick Insiders, the friends who will help ensure that many more investigations will come. Contributions go directly towards growing our editorial team and ensuring that Daily Maverick and Scorpio have a sustainable future. We can’t rely on advertising and don't want to restrict access to only those who can afford a paywall subscription. Membership is about more than just contributing financially – it is about how we Defend Truth, together.

So, if you feel so inclined, and would like a way to support the cause, please join our community of Maverick Insiders.... you could view it as the opposite of a sin tax. And if you are already Maverick Insider, tell your mother, call a friend, whisper to your loved one, shout at your boss, write to a stranger, announce it on your social network. The battle for the future of South Africa is on, and you can be part of it.


Comments

Please note you must be a Maverick Insider to comment. Sign up here or if you are already an Insider.

Family Ties

Ramaphosa acts to smooth relations with Botswana after Bridgette Radebe controversy

By Carien Du Plessis

Popsicles were originally going to be called "Eppsicles" after their inventor Frank Epperson.