DAMASCUS, Syria—Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes drove Islamic State (ISIS) fighters from Palmyra on Sunday, ending the group’s 10-month reign of terror over a town whose famed 2,000-year-old ruins once drew tens of thousands of visitors each year.
Government forces had been on the offensive for nearly three weeks to try to retake the central town, known among Syrians as the “Bride of the Desert,” which fell to the extremists last May. Their advance marks the latest in a series of setbacks for ISIS, which has come under mounting pressure on several fronts in Iraq and Syria in recent months.
In comments reported on state TV, President Bashar Assad described the Palmyra operation as a “significant achievement” offering “new evidence of the effectiveness of the strategy espoused by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism.”
Gen. Ali Mayhoub announced on the station that that the fall of Palmyra “directs a fatal blow to Daesh, undermines the morale of its mercenaries, and ushers in the start of its defeat and retreat,” referring to ISIS by its Arabic acronym. He said it lays the ground for further advances toward Raqqa, ISIS’s de facto capital, and Deir el-Zour, an eastern city it largely controls.
Troops in Palmyra are now dismantling explosive booby traps planted by ISIS, the station reported. State TV and a Britain-based monitoring group later reported that troops captured a military airport to the east.
The advance marks a strategic and symbolic victory for the government, which has sought to portray itself as a bulwark against terrorism. The town was an important juncture on an ISIS supply line connecting its territory in central and northern Syria to the Anbar province in Iraq, where the group also holds territory.
ISIS drove government forces from Palmyra in a matter of days last May and later demolished some of the best-known monuments in its UNESCO world heritage site, including two large temples dating back more than 1,800 years and a Roman triumphal archway.
State TV showed the rubble left over from the destruction of the Temple of Bel as well as the damaged archway, the supports of which were still standing. It said a statue of Zenobia, the 3rd century queen who ruled an independent state from Palmyra and figures strongly in Syrian lore, was missing. Many of the Roman colonnades, however, were still standing.
Artefacts inside the city’s museum also appeared heavily damaged on state TV. A sculpture of the Greek goddess Athena was shown decapitated, and the museum’s basement appeared to have been dynamited, the hall littered with broken statues.
Still, state media reported that a lion statue dating back to the 2nd century, previously thought to have been destroyed by ISIS militants, was found in a damaged but recoverable condition.
The extremists beheaded the archaeological site’s 81-year-old director Riad al-Asaad last August after he reportedly refused to divulge where authorities had hidden treasures before the group swept in. They have destroyed a number of historical sites across their self-declared caliphate, viewing such ruins as monuments to idolatry.
ISIS also demolished Palmyra’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of government opponents were reportedly tortured.
Syrian state TV hailed the government’s advance, and a local reporter spoke live from inside Palmyra, showing troops in the center of the town. Some of the nearby buildings had been reduced to rubble.
Syrian Culture Minister Issam Khalil described the recapture of Palmyra as a “victory for humanity and right over all projects of darkness.” Maamoun Abdulkarim, director of the museums and antiquities department in Damascus, said Palmyra’s Great Colonnade had suffered only minor damage. “We will rebuild what you have destroyed,” he said, addressing ISIS.
The Syrian opposition, which blames the government for the country’s devastating civil war and the rise of ISIS, rejected that narrative.
“The government wants through this operation to win the favor of Western nations by fighting against terrorism, while obscuring its responsibility as providing the reasons for the spread of terror,” said Khaled Nasser, a member of the opposition coalition that has been negotiating with the government in Geneva.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which monitors the conflict through local activists, confirmed ISIS had lost the town. Observatory chief Rami Abdurrahman said three weeks of fighting killed more than 400 ISIS fighters, as well as 180 troops and allied militiamen.
Residents told The Associated Press that ISIS evacuated all of Palmyra’s civilians to other territories under its control before government forces entered the city.
“It’s joyful for people to return home. Still we are sad to see damage in this historical city,” said Sohban Eleiwi, a businessman from Palmyra now residing in Homs.
But other residents said they would not return to live under government rule.
“We don’t hate the regime any less than we hate Daesh,” said Osama Khatib, a Palmyra native who fled to Turkey three years ago after serving a jail sentence for taking part in demonstrations.
“Daesh and the regime behave the same way,” he said.
Government forces have advanced on a number of fronts in recent months, aided by a Russian air campaign. Moscow announced earlier this month that it would begin drawing down its forces, but said it will continue to target ISIS and other extremist groups.
Russian jets carried out 40 air sorties near Palmyra in a 24-hour period, hitting 158 targets and killing more than 100 militants, Russia’s defense minister said Saturday.
The government has also benefited from a U.S. and Russian-brokered cease-fire that has sharply reduced violence across the country since it took effect last month. ISIS and the al-Qaida-affiliated Nusra Front are excluded from the agreement. The truce is intended to support peace talks underway in Geneva that were adjourned last week.
Syria’s conflict began a little more than five years ago with mostly peaceful protests against the Assad family’s four-decade rule. A fierce government crackdown and the rise of an insurgency plunged the country into a full-blown civil war that has killed more than 250,000 people.