May 2015 – SYRIA — Islamic State extremists captured the ancient Syrian town of Palmyra after government defense lines there collapsed Wednesday, a stunning triumph for the group only days after it captured the strategic city of Ramadi in Iraq. It was unclear by nightfall how close to Palmyra’s famed archaeological site the militants had advanced, activists said, adding that Syrian soldiers were seen fleeing the area.
The ruins at Palmyra are one of the world’s most renowned historic sites and there were fears the extremists would destroy them as they did major archaeological sites in Iraq. The UNESCO world heritage site is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades and other ruins and priceless artifacts. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, a cherished landmark referred to by Syrians as the “Bride of the Desert.”
The fall of the town to the Islamic State group after a week of fighting was an enormous loss to the government, not only because of its cultural significance, but because it opens the way for the extremists to advance to key government-held areas, including Damascus and the Syrian coast to the south and southwest, as well as the contested eastern city of Deir el-Zour to the east. Next to it are also important gas and oil fields in the country’s central region.
It was not immediately clear how close the militants were to the ruins, which are just southwest of the town. “I am terrified,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums. “This is a PR battle for Daesh, and they will insist on scoring victory against civilization by destroying” the ancient ruins, he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group. The fall of Palmyra just days after Islamic State fighters seized the strategic Iraqi city of Ramadi showed the extremists’ ability to advance on multiple fronts at opposite ends of a sprawling battlefield that spans the two countries — and erased any sense that recent IS losses in Tikrit and elsewhere had dealt a major blow to the militants.
The Syrian Observatory for human rights reported that government forces collapsed in the face of IS attacks and withdrew from the town late Wednesday. Beibares Tellawi, an activist in Homs province, also confirmed IS was in control of the town. He said the militants had reached the notorious Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian dissidents have been imprisoned and tortured over the years. The fate of the prisoners, believed to number around 1,000, was not immediately known. –USA Today