AMMAN: The Syrian Arab Army has captured the highest point just southwest of the historic desert town of Palmyra, leaving it “directly in the sights of regime forces,” former residents with relatives inside told Syria Direct Wednesday.
On Tuesday, the regime captured Peak 900, the tallest point in the Hael hills less than 4km from Palmyra proper. At the foot of the hills sits the southwestern entrance into Palmyra.
If the Islamic State loses the southwest entrance, it “could be instrumental in the regime’s capture of the city, which has fallen directly in their sights,” Mohammed Hassan al-Homsi, member of the Palmyra News Network who is from the town, told Syria Direct Wednesday from the Hama countryside.
The Islamic State took control of Palmyra in May 2015, shortly after losing Tikrit to Iraqi forces. Later that same month, IS fighters executed captured soldiers and civilians suspected of ties to the regime on the steps of the famous amphitheater, built in the second century AD, reported Syria Direct at the time.
A view of Palmyra’s ruins. Photo courtesy of bestourism.
In August, the Islamic State drew international condemnation for blowing up the altar of the Roman-era Temple of Bel, the main attraction in what remains of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The Syrian army, backed by Russian airstrikes, began its latest campaign to recapture Palmyra last week, reported pan-Arab daily al-Hayat March 12. Russian warplanes struck Islamic State targets in the city dozens of times from March 9 to 12 as regime ground troops advanced from the west of Palmyra and reached points 7km away.
Palmyra sits at the intersection of roads that cut across Syria’s desert regions. It was considered by the regime as the first line of defense against IS attacks originating from the east.
Islamic State control over Palmyra cut off regime supply lines leading to Deir e-Zor city, where IS fighters have encircled the few remaining regime-held neighborhoods. Palmyra served as a waystation for IS fighters moving back and forth between northern and eastern Syria and the Qalamoun mountain range near the Lebanese border.
Palmyra used to house a large number of Iranian officers, reported pro-opposition Zaman al-Wasl in February 2015.
The regime’s latest campaign against Palmyra is backed by continued Russian air support, even after Moscow’s surprise Monday announcement that will withdraw most of its forces from Syria.
“After the news of the Russian pullout from Syria,” Mohammed Yusuf, a Palmyran now living in Homs city told Syria Direct on Wednesday, the regime will “prove to the world it can continue its war against the Islamic State.”