The Syrian Arab Army (SAA) finally retook the historic city of Palmyra on March 27, after ten months under control of the Islamic State (IS). Though much international press coverage focused on the destruction that IS militants had wreaked upon the city’s famous ancient ruins, a more important story was the SAA’s military success in an operation that involved more than six months of desert combat.
Lying 155 kilometers (95 miles) east of Homs, Palmyra is situated in the heart of the Syrian Desert, nestled in the Palmyra mountain range. Almost 100 kilometers (65 miles) of the route to Palmyra runs along a battered stretch of desert road, lined with the debris of a year of fighting and dotted with checkpoints above which the flag of the Syrian Arab Republic now flies. “The desert and mountains are a difficult terrain, and because Daesh has many fighters from Afghanistan, they have good experience of fighting in this type of landscape,” said SAA External Communications Head General Samir Suliman, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State’s former name. He admitted that this had contributed to the loss of Palmyra in May 2015, a crushing defeat for the SAA that allowed IS to dramatically expand its territory in Syria. “It was a big loss for us before, but this time we were stronger and well prepared,” he said. “Now we know how to fight these terrorists because we have gained experience, and our army prepared carefully for this battle.”
The SAA alliance with the Russian Air Force was also a game changer in the battle for Palmyra. In the months leading up to the final offensive, Russian aircraft carried out multiple airstrikes on the modern city, which lies adjacent to ancient Palmyra. The improvised desert airbase, on the edge of the Homs–Palmyra road, where radar units mounted on trucks jut above high sandbanks, is still active as the Russian Air Force continues to support SAA operations. SAA generals and soldiers praised the Russian bombing campaign, explaining that in the case of Palmyra, such airstrikes paved the way for the final ground operations.
General Suliman spoke from the remains of al-Barriyat, a desert hamlet comprising a few bombed-out houses where fierce fighting had taken place. “This was the last [westernmost] point Daesh could reach, and they surrounded this area, occupying the mountains,” he explained. “We needed to gradually secure the mountains, one by one, so we could approach the city from several access points. It was critical for the army to control these hills and mountains.” Once the SAA established control over strategic points in the mountains, troops were able to edge along the desert road, the last nine kilometers (five miles), toward Palmyra. Securing the medieval citadel, another strategic point that overlooks the whole of Palmyra, was the penultimate victory on March 25 and heralded the final days of the offensive. Although it had taken months for the SAA to secure the road to Palmyra from the west and steadily close in on the city, the final and bloodiest stage of the battle was swift. General Suliman said, “It was not an easy battle but our army, the [pro-Assad militia] National Defense Forces, and the alliance with Russia achieved it quickly and effectively.”
General Suliman estimated that some 450 militants had been killed during the offensive and said the others had fled. “Some ran into the desert, some toward Raqqa, and we think others fled to Iraq,” he said. “But before they ran, they caused a lot of destruction.” This included planting extensive mines and rigging booby traps and IEDs in multiple premises across the city, including in residential properties. The task of clearing the city was too challenging for Syrian bomb-disposal teams to manage alone, and they were joined by Russian personnel, who brought with them Uran-6 robotic bomb disposal vehicles. The Russian Ministry of Defense reported on April 12 that almost 3,000 explosive objects had been cleared from 182 hectares (450 acres) of land and detonated or defused since bomb disposal operations began in early April.
The Islamic State also burned their dead so the bodies could not be recognized or identified, some of whom were local people, according to Omar, a 54-year-old accountant and former resident. “Daesh encouraged young men from the city to join, offering them $300 per month,” he said. “Daesh has a lot of money, and many people in Palmyra are very poor. Although most didn’t want to support them, some were forced to while others did so for the money.” He said many of the IS fighters were foreign—mostly from other Arab countries, but one who searched his house at the start of the IS occupation, when militants were hunting for hidden SAA soldiers, was a European with a very poor grasp of Arabic.
Below the ruined walls of the citadel, a group of soldiers contemplating their own losses sheltered from the midday sun in a canvas tent, drinking tea. “We are so proud of this victory,” said Lieutenant Ayham, 23. “It was a very fantastic thing, although we lost two of our best generals in the battle.” General Shaban Oja and General Ahmed Hamada were killed near the citadel by incoming fire from a tank, just days before the SAA took control of Palmyra, and their units felt the loss keenly. Another unit likewise commemorated the loss of Bashar Ali, 22, and Ahmed Ayoub, 23, whose suicide missions into Palmyra’s outskirts were key to recapturing the city. Though the Syrian government has been reticent about its casualty figures, a source close to the government’s Ministry of Information said almost 80 soldiers had been killed in the final two weeks of fighting for Palmyra.
Palmyra’s recapture has been billed by the Syrian government as paving the way for military offensives on the IS strongholds in Deir Ezzor and Raqqa. Such operations against IS and other designated terrorist organizations are excluded from the Syrian “cessation of hostilities” brokered by the United States and Russia on February 22 and have continued throughout the last two months. On April 20, Syria’s state news agency, SANA, reported that the Syrian Air Force had carried out successful airstrikes on several IS targets in the province of Deir Ezzor.
The victory at Palmyra appears to have reinforced the notion among supporters of the Syrian government that Damascus is in control of the most strategically important territory. “The areas that IS now controls are not strategic, and these are not where most of the population is,” General Suliman disagreed, adding that other opposition forces against the Syrian government held even less power. “The so-called ‘moderate Syrian opposition’ seen on TV has very little control on the ground.”
Tom Westcott is a freelance journalist reporting from North Africa and the Middle East.