The battle for Palmyra will reveal how much damage was done to Syria’s priceless relics – Los Angeles Times

Syrian pro-government forces battled their way Friday into the outer areas of the city of Palmyra, the archaeological metropolis held by Islamic State militants since May of last year, as part of a punishing month-long drive to wrest control of the city and surrounding areas from the extremist group.

Syrian state television broadcast images of soldiers backed by armored units advancing toward the city as Syrian and Russian helicopters and warplanes pounded militant positions ahead of the troops. The state news agency said army units and allied fighters had retaken the ancient citadel, a 13th century castle perched atop a city whose 2,000-year-old antiquities have become some of the most devastating casualties of the occupation.

Some opposition activists disputed the extent of the gains, and fierce fighting was still underway, but it appeared clear that Russian airpower was helping turn the tide in Syrian President Bashar Assad‘s push to recapture large swaths of territory that have been declared part of Islamic State’s caliphate.

Moscow earlier this month said it would withdraw most of its forces from Syria, but President Vladimir Putin has made it clear that recapturing Palmyra remains a crucial objective.

“I hope that this pearl of world civilization, or at least what’s left of it after bandits have held sway there, will be returned to the Syrian people and the entire world,” Putin said.


A UNESCO World Heritage site, Palmyra was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world; its storied ruins include more than 1,000 columns, a Roman aqueduct and a necropolis of more than 500 tombs.

Drone footage released by Russian media outlets Friday showed that many of the city’s columns and arches had been spared from destruction. Yet it also confirmed the potentially irreparable damage inflicted upon the temple of Baalshamin and the heart of the temple of Bel.

The city’s loss to Islamic State in May was a key setback for Syrian government forces. Overstretched troops, unable to hold ground across a variety of fronts, were forced to give up the city to defend provinces considered more essential to the government’s survival.

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