Assad boasts of success in pushing Islamic State out of Syria's ancient Palmyra city

Syrian government forces backed by heavy Russian air support drove Islamic State out of Palmyra on Sunday.

ISIS executes Syrian soldiers in ruins of ampitheater in Palmyra (photo credit: WELAYAT HOMS / AFP)
ISIS executes Syrian soldiers in ruins of ampitheater in Palmyra
(photo credit: WELAYAT HOMS / AFP)
President Bashar Assad said the recapture of Palmyra by Syrian government forces on Sunday showed the success of the army's strategy in combating terrorism, Syrian television said.
"The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism," it quoted Assad as telling a visiting French delegation, including parliamentarians.
Syrian government forces backed by heavy Russian air support drove Islamic State out of Palmyra on Sunday, inflicting what the army called a mortal blow to militants who seized the city last year and dynamited its ancient temples.
The loss of Palmyra represents one of the biggest setbacks for the ultra-hardline Islamist group since it declared a caliphate in 2014 across large parts of Syria and Iraq.
The army general command said that its forces took over the city with support from Russian and Syrian air strikes, opening up the huge expanse of desert leading east to the Islamic State strongholds of Raqqa and Deir al-Zor.
Palmyra would become "a launchpad to expand military operations" against the group in those two provinces, it said, promising to "tighten the noose on the terrorist group and cut supply routes ... ahead of their complete recapture".
Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, told The Jerusalem Post, "The regime's advances throughout the country are heavily dependent on Syrian air cover.”
“How it is going to use this ‘launchpad’ to retake the Euphrates valley, where coalition aircraft are dominant, remains unknown," said Tabler.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said clashes continued on the eastern edge of Palmyra, around the prison and airport, but the bulk of the Islamic State force had withdrawn and retreated east, leaving the city under Assad's control.
Syrian state-run television broadcast from inside the city, showing empty streets and badly damaged buildings.
It quoted a military source saying Syrian and Russian jets were targeting Islamic State fighters as they fled, hitting dozens of vehicles on the roads leading east from the city.
Russia's intervention in September turned the tide of Syria's five-year conflict in Assad's favor. Despite its declared withdrawal of most military forces two weeks ago, Russian jets and helicopters carried out dozens of strikes daily over Palmyra as the army pushed into the city.
"This achievement represents a mortal blow to the terrorist organization and lays the foundation for a great collapse in the morale of its mercenaries and the beginning of its defeat," the army command statement said.
In a pointed message to the United States, which has led a separate Western and Arab coalition against Islamic State in Syria and Iraq since 2014, the military command said its gains showed that the army "and its friends" were the only force able to uproot terrorism.
In a phone call with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Assad said Russia's air support had been essential in taking back Palmyra, and said the city would be rebuilt.
"Palmyra was demolished more than once through the centuries ... and we will restore it anew so it will be a treasure of cultural heritage for the world," Syrian television quoted Assad as saying.
Observatory director Rami Abdulrahman said 400 Islamic State fighters died in the battle for Palmyra, which he described as the biggest single defeat for the group since it announced its cross-border caliphate nearly two years ago.
Russian President Vladimir Putin congratulated Assad on regaining the city of Palmyra, the Kremlin spokesman said on Sunday.
"Assad highly valued the help Russian air forces have provided and underlined that such successes as regaining Palmyra would have been impossible without Russia's support," Dmitry Peskov said, quoted by TASS news agency.
Peskov said that Putin told Assad that Russia will continue to support Damascus in fighting terrorists, TASS reported. Putin also talked to UNESCO head Irina Bokova on Sunday, saying that Russia will help to demine Palmyra, Peskov added.
Russian media touted the victory in what appeared to be propaganda to show that its military intervention in Syria actually was helping defeat Islamic State and not just attack other rebel groups fighting the regime. One informed source in Damascus told TASS that the victory would have been impossible without Russian support.
"I’m personally grateful to Russia for that," he said.
Charles Lister, a Syria expert and resident fellow at the Middle East Institute and a senior consultant to the Shaikh Group’s Track II Syria Initiative, Tweeted on Sunday that Syria’s defeat of Islamic State in Palmyra achieved two objectives.
First, it justifies the Syrian regime’s declared role in countering terrorism, and second it weakens the political process, he said.
Islamic State and al Qaida's Syrian branch the Nusra Front are excluded from a month-long cessation of hostilities in Syria that has brought a relative lull in fighting between the government and rebels battling Assad in the west of the country.
The limited truce has allowed indirect peace talks to resume at the United Nations in Geneva, sponsored by Washington and Moscow. But progress has been slow, with the government and its opponents deeply divided over any political transition, particularly whether Assad must leave power.