'Scorched earth' battles leave parts of Palmyra 'flattened'

The Syrian Arab Army is advancing from three directions under the cover of heavy Russian and regime airstrikes in addition to ground bombardment on the ancient desert town of Palmyra in Homs province, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Regime forces are now just 2km west of what remains of Palmyra, a resident who fled the town late last week tells Syria Direct.

Khalid, not his real name, fled to the Aleppo countryside. From there, he hopes to eventually cross into Turkey.

Intense bombardment in recent days has “flattened entire neighborhoods” in Palmyra, Khalid tells Syria Direct’s Osama Abu Zeid. “With the regime’s ‘scorched earth’ policy, we are seeing hundreds of rockets and shells a day.”

Q: Where were Syrian army forces positioned when you fled Palmyra?

Regime forces are attacking Palmyra from three directions. To the west, the regime is near Jabal al-Matar, only 2km from the ancient city, and from there it is attempting to take control of the al-Amiriyah village north of Palmyra.

The desert terrain and sandstorms are posing obstacles.

Q: Describe life for Palmyra’s residents as the battles continue around them.

Palmyra is destroyed, and most civilians left after IS took control [in May 2015]. With the regime’s “scorched earth” policy, we are seeing hundreds of rockets and shells a day, either from planes or ground artillery and mortars. This bombardment has flattened entire neighborhoods.

Q: Talk about Islamic State fighters in Palmyra; what is their strength in the town?

Most IS fighters in Palmyra right now, and most of those killed recently, are young people from the town, teenagers who IS enticed and conscripted after taking control. Their ages range from 17-20 years old. There are also some other Arab fighters. I haven’t seen foreign fighters in four months, the last ones I saw were a French fighter and another from Indonesia.

Q: How were Palmyra’s ruins when you left?

I last visited them more than a month ago. IS destroyed a number of them with explosives, as you know. Russian and regime bombings have also struck them. Say goodbye to Palmyra’s ruins, they’ve been completely disfigured and destroyed.

Q: Do you expect the army will take back Palmyra?

Seeing this violent daily bombardment, I expect it to fall into regime hands once more. All that stands in their way are the mines, which IS planted all around the town after taking control of it, and the weather conditions (sandstorms).

Osama Abu Zeid

Osama Abu Zeid is a native of Homs, where he served as a media activist and founding member of the Homs Revolutionary Council after the Syrian uprising began in 2011.

Maria Nelson

Maria Nelson was a 2014-2015 fellow at the Center for Arabic Study Abroad program (CASA I) in Amman, Jordan. She holds a BA in Near Eastern Studies from Princeton University, with a certificate in Arabic Language and Culture.