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Arabic press roundup: Does Palmyra mean the end for IS?

Pro-Assad media hails recapture of ancient city as 'strategic victory' but others allege collusion between Damascus and retreating militants
A Syrian soldier looks at graffiti in Palmyra reading: "The Islamic State is staying' (AFP)

The dramatic recapture of the ancient city of Palmyra by the Syrian army and its allies on Sunday prompted some commentators in the Arabic-language media to declare the beginning of the end for the Islamic State (IS) group, while others predicted a long and drawn out battle to come with regional and global consequences.

Commentators could not even agree over language to describe the event, with pro-Syrian government outlets hailing it a “liberation” and a “strategic victory”, while critical media preferred to call it a “retreat” or even an “unfortunate victory for the regime”.

A news report in the Syrian state-run Tishreen newspaper said: “Daesh’s terrorists suffered great losses at the hands of the Syrian army”, using an Arabic acronym for the group.

It said the Russian air force had targeted 851 IS military sites, “killing 100 terrorists and destroying ammunition storages, tanks and artillery”.

The newspaper added that the Syrian army had gained two major towns near the city of Hama.

Hezbollah’s Almanar TV also hailed the strategic consequences of the victory, predicting that the Syrian army and its allies would now chase IS fighters eastwards across the desert as they retreated towards Deir Ezzor.

“Liberating Palmyra was not easy but never impossible. The Syrian Arab army prepared a military plan and executed it in coordination with the Russian air force which provided an aerial cover. The Daesh terrorists collapsed quickly on the battlefield and fled the city during the night,” it reported.

Writing for the Egyptian news website Albadil, Hadir Mahmoud said Palmyra was “a Syrian triumph and an American setback”, highlighting the contradictions in US policy which have seen it at once asserting the need to defeat IS while also calling for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down.

Lebanon’s pro-Assad Alsafir newspaper was unambiguously triumphant with a headline reading: “Syrian Army crushes Daesh and liberates Palmyra”.

The same story highlighted other setbacks suffered by IS including its defeat last year by Kurdish fighters in Kobane and its loss of territory in Iraq, where the US is stepping up support for a government offensive now targeting IS-held Mosul.

“The superpowers seem to be adamant about eradicating the organisation,” it said.

The London-based Al Quds Al Araby newspaper noted that Palmyra had been captured not only by the Syrian army but with the help of Iranian militias, Hezbollah and Russian forces.

Writing in the paper, Hosain Al Zoby said: “There is a mutual US-Russian understanding in regard to fighting IS. The Russians are working in Syria while the other is working in Iraq.”

But in a news show on the pro-Saudi Al Arabiya television network, a senior figure in the Syrian opposition, Asad al-Zoby, alleged collusion between the Syrian government and IS, suggesting that IS had “withdrawn from the city in coordination with the regime which allowed it to take over the city in the first place”.

Zoby added that he believed IS has pulled out from Palmyra to give the government more cards to play at the Geneva peace talks. He further expected that the radical organisation will take the same step and withdraw from Deir Ezzor for the same reason.

The Saudi-funded London-based Alhayat newspaper attributed the victory to the Russians who it said had sent special forces to fight with the Syrian army.

But in an opinion piece for the paper, Moustafa Karkoti said that the rule of the Assad family would soon come to an end, regardless of events on the battlefield.

“Regardless of the statements that the Syrian president is a red line in any political process, the super powers will only decide his fate,” Karkoti wrote.

“The majority of the superpowers are not with Damascus despite a small number of allies. They [those opposed to Assad] would like him to leave today, not even tomorrow. We could claim that the regime has unfortunately won the battle, but not the war.”

Others focused on the activities of IS elsewhere, such as last week’s bombings in Brussels, Iraq and Yemen, suggesting that the group could increasingly resort to terrorist-style attacks as it suffered territorial losses in Syria and Iraq.

Commenting on Friday’s deadly bomb attack on a youth football tournament near the town of Iskandiriya south of Baghdad, the Iraq’s Almustakbalpaper.net news website wrote: “This Daesh massacre, targeting a sports ground, reveals how devilish this organisation is.

Daesh is not able to face our security forces on the battlefield so they target innocent civilians. The organisation is trying to claim a victory following its repeated defeats.”

Writing for the Lebanese Assafir newspaper, Samir Al Atiya wondered when the campaign to defeat IS in Raqqa, the capital of the group’s self-declared caliphate, would begin – and who would lead the fight.

“The decisions of [those fighting IS] are not spontaneous. [The recapture of Palmyra] came following the American-Russian deal to eradicate the organisation. [But] the Syrian army and its allies will not be permitted to liberate Raqqa as it will be seen as a victory for the regime.”