Islamic State extremists Wednesday captured the Syrian desert town of Palmyra, famed for its ancient ruins and a notorious political prison, in their second major victory in just four days after ousting the Iraqi army from the city of Ramadi.
Syrian state news media reported that the government had withdrawn local militias protecting the town after evacuating their families, and local activists said other regime forces had retreated 30 miles to the east to a local phosphate mine.
The anti-regime Local Coordinating Committee or LCC said the entire city of Palmyra had come under Islamist State control after Assad forces staged a “strategic retreat.”
The LCC said a limited number of army units remained, occupying the ancient citadel, a single military security branch, and positions on a nearby mountain overlooking Palmyra.
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The extent of the fighting for the city was unclear. State news media spoke of heavy clashes north of the city and said that army troops had destroyed five armored vehicles and killed “dozens of terrorists.” The LCC quoted local doctors as saying the Islamic State had killed at least 26 troops.
But a local anti-regime media activist told McClatchy that regime forces had delivered the city without a fight. The activist asked not to be identified by name for his own safety.
The fall of Palmyra represented a major setback not only for the Syrian government but also was another sign that the U.S.-led aerial campaign to degrade and defeat the Islamic State is at best troubled.
Palmyra, an oasis town of 50,000 that is renowned for its Greco-Roman ruins, lies about 250 miles east of Ramadi, and while its loss is nowhere near as significant a capture as the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province, the Islamic State’s operation demonstrates once again that it is a formidable foe.
Despite daily air bombardment by U.S. and other allied air forces, the Islamic State carried off simultaneous ground assaults in two locations and showed superior fighting tactics against two different government forces – a feat that required planning, preparation and a mastery of logistics.
For the U.S.-led coalition, which has relied entirely on U.S. airstrikes to combat the Islamic State in Syria, the capture of Palmyra will raise more questions about whether the current strategy has any hope of success.
Randa Slim, an expert with the Middle East Institute in Washington, expressed incredulity that the U.S.-led coalition apparently had launched no airstrikes against the truck-borne Islamic State forces that overran Palmyra.
“Where are these coalition attacks? In order to get to Palmyra you have to drive through open desert. There is nothing but open desert. Couldn’t they see them from the air?” she asked. “They could have picked up the trucks. There is nowhere for them to hide.”
On a higher level, she said that the Islamic State’s success in capturing Palmyra and Ramadi in Iraq showed that the Obama administration’s strategy of defeating the extremist movement is failing.
Also critical of the U.S.-led coalition was Syria’s director of museums and antiquities, who told the Syrian state news agency that he had hoped the coalition would strike to protect the city’s archaeological treasures.
“We hoped the international community wouldn’t fail to defend Palmyra, but we didn’t (notice) any actual reaction by it,” Maamoun Abdul-Kareem was quoted as saying.
He said hundreds of statues had been removed from the archeological site and taken to safe areas, but expressed fear that the Islamic State would continue its practice of destroying ancient monuments and temples as it has in Iraq.
The Syrian government also removed prisoners from Palmyra’s notorious Tadmor prison. According to the media activist in Palmyra, the political prisoners were transferred to Damascus and only minor criminals had been left behind.
As Islamic State fighters captured the prison and released the prisoners, government aircraft bombed the prison, killing civilians living nearby, the activist said.
Alhamadee is a McClatchy special correspondent. Jonathan S. Landay contributed from Washington.