Ten months ago, the Islamic State remarkably seized the ancient city of Palmyra from the Syrian Arab Army (SAA) during a blitz offensive which subsequently had dozens of government soldiers executed at point-blank range. Additionally, ISIS fighters were able to push SAA troops some 10 kilometers west of the city. Fortunately for the Syrian Government, its army was able to set up a stable defensive line on the outskirts of Palmyra at the M3-Highway which run horizontally across Syria.
After ISIS’ offensive was halted, the Islamic State was quick to establish itself in the city and implement harsh religious law upon the local populace. Also, as to defend the city from a government counter-offensive, ISIS engineers reportedly (and evidently through al-Masdar sources) laid mines and explosives all around the ancient ruins west of Palmyra.
As of two weeks ago, the Syrian High Command has deployed all sorts of elite branches of the Syrian Arab Army as to defeat ISIS at Palmyra once and for all. For starters the Tiger Forces, an elite unit which specializes exclusively in carrying out offensives, have reinforced the SAA’s 18th Tank Division, National Defense Forces and the Desert Hawks Brigade (elite branch, specialized in desert warfare). Secondly, hundreds of foreign fighters from Hezbollah (Lebanese paramilitary), Liwaa Imam ‘Ali (Iraqi paramilitary), Harakat Al-Nujaba (Iraqi paramilitary) and Kataebat Hezbollah (Hezbollah’s Iraqi branch) have volunteered to aid government forces in their efforts to capture the city. Thirdly, the Syrian Marines (foremost specialized for sea/lake warfare) have been re-transferred from Latakia to the Palmyra frontline.
Thereby, some 5000 to 5500 government troops – many from elite military branches – are engaged with the Syrian Government’s assault on ISIS-held Palmyra. Due to the ongoing offensive, less than 1 kilometer currently prevents government forces from entering the city. As of a few hours ago, the SAA captured Tal Areen, a strategic highpoint which overlooks Palmyra city itself. However, due to mines and improvised explosives, the last ISIS-held kilometer will be no easy task to capture.
Palmyra holds a lot of strategical significance; through various highways, the city connects Damascus (Syrian capital), Homs (3rd largest city in Syria) and Deir Ezzor (largest city in eastern Syria). In Deir Ezzor, some 100.000 civilians in government-held districts live under daily siege as ISIS forces have the city completely surrounded. Thus, the battle for Palmyra represents these residents’ only hope for evacuation as Deir Ezzor and Palmyra are linked by road.
The battle of Palmyra also represents much symbolic importance; this city, which lies in the very center of Syria itself, is regarded as the ‘beating heart of the nation’, and holds several UNESCO World Heritage sites – many of which have regrettably been destroyed by ISIS’ Sharia enforces as most monuments were deemed ‘un-Islamic’. Thus, if government forces are able to capture the city, the Syrian Government will once again be able to safeguard whatever heritage sites which have survived ISIS occupation.
As seen in these images from today, the Russian Air Force is also heavily involved in the battle for Palmyra: