Sat | Aug 19, 2017

Dottin powers Heat to exciting victory

Published:Monday | December 12, 2016 | 12:15 AM
In this picture taken last Monday, a Syrian man walks by posters of Syrian President Bashar Assad with Arabic script that read “Homeland, honor, fidelity. Together we will build it,” in Aleppo, Syria.

BEIRUT (AP):

Islamic State (IS) militants reoccupied Palmyra on Sunday, taking the ancient central city from government troops in a major advance after a year of setbacks in Syria and neighbouring Iraq, a Syrian government official and the group said.

In retaking Palmyra, the extremist group appeared to be taking advantage of the Syrian and Russian preoccupation with Aleppo, timing its attack to coincide with a massive government offensive to capture the last remaining opposition-held neighbourhoods in the northern city.

Palmyra, with its towering 2,000-year-old ruins, holds mostly symbolic meaning in the wider Syrian civil war, although its location in central Syria gives it some strategic significance as well.

Islamic State militants re-entered the city on Saturday for the first time since they were expelled by Syrian and Russian forces amid much fanfare nine months ago. The government's first important win against the Islamic State group in the internationally renowned ancient city gave Damascus the chance to try to position itself as part of the global antiterrorism campaign.The militants had spent 10 months in Palmyra, during which they dynamited a number of temples and destroyed other artefacts.

Sunday's takeover came hours after government troops and Russian air raids pushed the group out the city's parameters. IS militants then regrouped and attacked the city from multiple fronts, forcing government troops to retreat. Palmyra opposition activists said the militants were going door to door in the city, looking for remnants of government forces.

Homs Province Governor Talal Barazi told the pan-Arab Mayadeen news channel that the IS attack on Palmyra is a "desperate" reaction to the Syrian government military "victories" on the ground. He said the forces that support terrorism, including western countries, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, wanted to "realise some type of gain" and chose Palmyra because of its international reputation.

Scores of Syrian troops have reportedly been killed in fighting around Palmyra in the last few days. While the battles are a distraction from the fight in Aleppo, they are unlikely to affect the government's final push on the last rebel-held Aleppo neighbourhoods. By Sunday evening, there was no sign that the army was shifting significant resources away from Aleppo for the fighting in central Syria.

The government and its allies have reportedly mobilised some 40,000 fighters for Aleppo.

"I don't think the regime would withdraw forces from Aleppo to Palmyra and risk losing Aleppo," said Rami Abdurrahman, the head of the opposition monitoring group the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. "I think the regime's priority now is to finish the battle for Aleppo before the end of the month for sure. As for Palmyra, the whole international community would stand by it against IS."