With Russian air support, regime closes in on Islamic State-held Palmyra

AMMAN: Syrian forces are roughly four kilometers away from the UNESCO World Heritage town of Palmyra in Homs province, with a resident telling Syria Direct on Tuesday that “we expect Palmyra to fall to the regime in the next few days.”

A combined regime army, militia and Hezbollah force backed by Russian airpower captured the al-Qadri Farms 4km west of Palmyra on Monday, reported the Iranian state-affiliated Fars News Agency, in addition to a string of IS positions in surrounding hills and heights over the weekend. Activists inside Palmyra tell Syria Direct that regime forces are in fact approaching the rural Homs town.

Regime ground forces, reportedly 4km west of IS-held Palmyra, advancing under Russian helicopter-gunship fire. Photo courtesy of Military Media.

With regime forces at Palmyra’s outskirts, “IS fighters are in disarray–they’re far fewer in number than we’re used to seeing, and they’re mostly locals … we’re not seeing the usual influx of foreign fighters,” the unnamed Palmyra resident told Syria Direct.

However weak, or lacking in cadre, IS will not leave Palmyra quietly. “IS fighters may under no circumstances withdraw from the coming battle–they’re to fight to the last man, under orders of al-Baghdadi himself,” the resident said from the nearby town of a-Sukhna, 31km northeast of Palmyra. An Internet blackout in Palmyra means he had to leave town to communicate with Syria Direct.

Russian attack helicopters are reportedly buttressing the regime’s march on Palmyra, Mohammed Hassan al-Homsi, a north Syria citizen journalist with family in Palmyra, told Syria Direct on Tuesday.

Pro-regime media outlets released videos and photographs earlier this week of reportedly Russian-piloted Mi-24 helicopter gunships delivering close air support to advancing regime ground forces west of Palmyra. Source: War Media Center.

The reported capture of al-Qadri Farms–the closest regime forces have ever got to Palmyra since its fall to IS late May–is the culmination of a week-long armor and infantry drive east.

By November 23, regime and allied forces had won parts of the al-Hayal Heights, overlooking Palmyra to the east, reported pro-regime Central War Media this past Sunday, in addition to a number of surrounding fire positions to the city’s northwest, reported pro-regime Iranian news agency Al-Alam on Monday.

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.

Joseph Adams

Joseph was a 2013-2014 Boren Fellow in Arabic based in Amman, Jordan and is the founder of Open Syria. He holds BA and MS degrees in political science from UCLA and MIT, and is an MA degree candidate in Arabic at Middlebury College.