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IS makes gains in Palmyra despite government reinforcements

Palmyra is not just great propaganda value, but it is resource rich and seen as a doorway to western Syria
A file picture taken on March 14, 2014 shows a partial view of the ancient oasis city of Palmyra (AFP)

The Islamic State militant group launched a fierce offensive in the central Syria city of Palmyra this week, prompting fears for the safety of highly-prized ruins in the city, a source of national pride for the country and a UNESCO World Heritage site.

While the government attempted to send in reinforcements to thwart off the attack, by Saturday, IS had reportedly advance into the city and won control of the northern parts pf Palmyra, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

The fighting has been fierce, with casualties reported on both sides, but according to analysts Palmyra represent a strategic value for the group and is seen as a key target.

The city in central Syria is home to much more than ancient ruins and a once thriving tourism industry. It also has key military value, as well as natural resources and symbolic assets. In addition, the town has always been a strategic gateway to the west of the country and sits along a critical north-west corridor linking IS positions in the north and east, to the central province of Homs and the capital Damascus.

IS launched the offensive late on Thursday from the northeast of the city, quickly securing positions within just two kilometres from the ancient antiquities site, sparking fears the ruins may be looted or destroyed. IS has already destroyed invaluable antiquities in Mosul, Nimrod and Ninevah in Iraq that they view as idolatrous.

The attack drew defensive artillery from government forces in the city, with airstrikes also following suit.

Talal Barazi, the governor of central Homs province, where Palmyra is located, told AFP the army had “sent reinforcements and it is bombing the IS positions from the air” and that the situation was “under control.”

Residents speaking the Middle East Eye via internet said they feared being caught up in defensive government shelling and air-raids, as well as the potential for US strikes against IS positions.

One resident, Saleh, described hearing the sound of rocket fire throughout the night on Thursday. He said there was fear and confusion among residents trying to escape the fighting to Homs, but that the roads were blocked.

Media activists said late on Friday that IS had advanced to the gates of the ancient city and there were reports that dozens of government soldiers had been killed, some beheaded, by the group in Sukhna, north east of Palmyra.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that IS had executed 26 civilians - 10 of whom were beheaded - for "collaborating with the regime” in the village of Amiriyeh, north of Tadmor.

“We fear retribution from both sides,” said one resident, Saleh.

Gas, water and munitions

Palmyra has been largely spared large-scale conflict witnessed by other parts of the country in the four-and-a-half year civil war.

Despite sporadic fighting in the desert areas surrounding the city, it has remained firmly under control of government forces since September 2013, with the army imposing military security zones and curfews in the city.

In July last year, however, intense fighting for the Shaer gas field broke out between forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad forces and IS. The field, located 100 kilometres east of Homs but close to Palmyra, is one of the largest in the country. More than 270 government troops were killed in the fighting. The government successfully regained control of the field, but the site has remained extremely high value for both sides.

IS has attacked and captured oil and gas resources in the country, helping to finance its expansion of its self-declared caliphate, or Islamic State.

“Palmyra is a population centre. IS can use it as a logistics base, [but] there is also water there,” said Jeff White, defence fellow and Middle East security expert at The Washington Institute.

“It gives them a foothold at the doorstep of Damascus, Homs and Hama,” he said. “It’s also right in the middle of bunch of gas fields.”

The Palmyra gas fields are linked to two pipelines carrying gas to power stations in Aleppo and Damascus, Homs and Banias.

The Syrian government has used Palmyra, and Sukhna to the north, as a logistics and munitions base, serving military lines to the north and east of the country, and as defensive positions of the nearby gas fields.

“There is a civilian airfield, and a major military airfield further to the west,” said White.

“It’s a gateway to the west and it controls the lines of communication from Damascus to Deir El-Zor.”

“There is quite a lot of armour there.”

Tadmor is also home to the notorious Tadmor prison, where thousands of anti-government opponents and militants are believed to be held.

White said it was not clear whether the prison would emerge as a target, although the group has launched siege and mass breakouts on prisons before.

Having suffered defeats against Kurdish forced backed by US-led airstrikes in Kobani, and in the northeastern predominantly Kurdish city of Hassakeh, some residents speculated whether IS would try to make an example out of Palmyra.

Gains by the group's main rival, the Al-Qaeda affiliated Nusra Front in the north west of the country also present a looming challenge for IS.

“IS lost in Kobane and Hassakeh, so they want to make Palmyra a flagship defeat,” said the resident, Saleh, who asked that his first name only be used for security reasons.

"We are afraid of both sides taking revenge. If IS take control then they will take revenge on the people for siding with the regime. If the regime takes control they will take revenge on the people for siding with IS."

"They will behead people in the streets."

White said Palmyra would serve as an important “militarily as well as symbolic” victory for IS.

Local tribes

Palmyra is home to a large ethnic, tribal Bedouin population. Some tribal groups have called for US assistance in the battle again IS, but, with given fluid allegiances, the US has so far remained reluctant to provide them with armed support.

White said it was unlikely the US would target IS positions in Palmyra.

“We would be seen as supporting the regime’s defence of the area; We haven’t done that so far and we are not really interested in helping the regime, so I think it’s unlikely,” he said.

“We don’t have anyone there that we can depend on…Some of the tribal elements are fighting for the regime and some are fighting with IS. As usual the tribal picture is very complicated.”

Saleh, the resident called for assistance.

“We don’t want IS, but we don’t want to be left alone,” he said.

“If this [if this] was a Kurdish city then we know we would have received help by now.”

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