(War In Context) The Guardian reports: Islamic State now holds sway over half of Syria’s landmass after its seizure of Palmyra, where it has begun massacring a rebellious tribe and faces no opposition to its entry and sacking of the historic city’s ancient ruins.
“There are no forces to stop them [entering the ruins],” Rami Abdul Rahman, director of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, said. “But the important thing also is they now control 50% of Syria.”
Isis seized Palmyra on Wednesday night after a week-long siege that led to the collapse of forces loyal to Bashar al-Assad. The militants are drawing closer to his strongholds of Homs and Damascus and severing supply lines to Deir Ezzor in the east, which faces an overpowering Isis crackdown.
Local activists said Isis had imposed a curfew and was sweeping the city for remnants of Assad’s forces. Isis has also massacred members of the Shaitat tribe, which fought alongside the Assad regime in Palmyra and had railed against Isis in Deir Ezzor – a rebellion in which the militant group killed 800 members of the tribe.
Control of Palmyra leaves Isis with unopposed access to the city’s magnificent ruins, amid fears that they will destroy significant chunks of Syria’s heritage as they did in Iraq.
But more significantly, Isis controls vast swaths of Syria, from Palmyra to Raqqa and Deir Ezzor in the country’s west, a tract that the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights estimates to be 95,000 sq km, or more than half Syria’s landmass. With its seizure of the Arak and al-Hail gas fields near Palmyra, it also controls much of the country’s electricity supply – those two fields power much of the Syrian regime’s strongholds in the west. [Continue reading…]
The Daily Beast adds: According to Khaled Omran, a member of the Palmyra’s anti-Assad Coordinating Committee, the regime tried to reinforce its collapsing front lines Wednesday with detainees from the notorious Tadmour Prison. Most, however, ran away from the ISIS onslaught rather than stay and fight for their jailers. “I saw about 10 busloads of prisoners being driven to the front,” Omran said Wednesday evening via Skype. “Maybe 1,000 men.” They added to the regime’s “thousands” of soldiers and forcibly conscripted tribal militias who were used, in Omran’s words, as “cannon fodder.”
Assad’s military were stationed throughout the city and its outlying districts, which are home to several security installations, including an important airbase that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has used in the past to deliver resupplies to its overstretched and attrited ally, and the Syrian air force has used to wage sorties on mostly civilian and non-ISIS targets in the war-torn country. However, the use of prisoners to defend against ISIS stands as an interesting contrast to how the terror army did the jailbreaking in Ramadiearlier in the week in order to swell their own ranks.
“Four days ago, ISIS started their preparations to storm” Palmyra, Omran explained. “Regime forces called in reinforcements, mainly to the military security branch and the citadel, but relied heavily on their air force. The number of ISIS fighters was quite small—they were in the hundreds. They weren’t very heavily equipped, save for antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks in six positions around the city.” These rudimentary air defenses were enough to deter to the fighter planes and attack helicopters. “I didn’t see them down any jets, but the guns were enough to deter most of the aerial assaults.” [Continue reading…]
Oryx Blog says: With the strategically important town of al-Sukhna falling just over a week before, and the Iraqi city of Ramadi just days before Tadmur, it appears the Islamic State is far from being under control, and possibly attempting to revive the seemingly unstoppable upmarch of last summer.
Tadmur [Palmyra], which is also home to Tadmur airbase, is of high strategic importance due to its position at the base of the vital M20 highway, which leads through the recently fallen al-Sukhna to the regime’s last holdout in the East of the country: Deir ez-Zor. Without access to this highway and with little prospect of retaking both of the Islamic State’s newest gains, the Assad-regime will face extreme difficulty in keeping its troops in Deir ez-Zor supplied, and the fall of the city and associated airbase might soon become inevitable.
The town of Tadmur is best known for the ancient Roman monuments and ruins, which, given the Islamic State’s history with the destruction of historical sites, is now feared to be a target for vandalism. Although this aspect will likely incite a lot of coverage from Western media, it should not be forgotten that there are also thousands of lives at stake, with hundreds of casualties reported so far and many dead, despite earlier reporting from Syrian State Media that citizens were being evacuated. Of course, with mainstream media eager to find new stories that might interest a diverse public, events such as renewed poison gas attacks and the current offensive are less likely to be covered than a story on ancient Roman ruins in danger of destruction.
Also of great importance are the massive weapon depots located in Tadmur, one of the largest in Syria. While the exact contents of the depots remain unknown, there are reports of ballistic missiles being stored here. Should this be the case, it is likely images of such missiles in Islamic State’s hands will surface again soon, even though it is unlikely that they will get any to work. Perhaps more of interest is the fact that many other types of weaponry captured by the fighters of Islamic State as Ghaneema (spoils of war) will provide the means for future offensives, allowing the Islamic State to exert pressure on fronts throughout the region.