Islamic State takes control of Syria’s Palmyra in westward advance

Islamic Extremism

Smoke billows from the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria on May 19, 2015. Photo: CCTV.

The Islamic State seized full control of the historic city of Palmyra in central Syria on Thursday, just days after it captured a provincial capital in neighbouring Iraq, suggesting momentum is building for the ultra-hardline group.

Click here to watch CCTV’s veteran war reporter Feng Yunxian as she follows the Syrian military into the ancient sites around Palmyra just hours before the city fell to IS.

The twin successes pile pressure not just on Damascus and Baghdad, but also throw doubt on U.S. strategy to rely almost exclusively on air strikes to defeat the Sunni Muslim movement, which is an offshoot of al Qaeda.

IS said in a statement posted by followers on Twitter that it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military bases, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from President Bashar al-Assad’s army and allied forces.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said Islamic State now controls more than half of Syrian territory following four years of civil war.

The radical group has destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, an ancient World Heritage site and home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.

Clashes in the area since Wednesday, killed at least 100 pro-government fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which bases its information on a network of sources on the ground.

Islamic State said retreating pro-government forces had left behind many dead, but gave no precise figures.

The assault on the city is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to pressures on Assad’s overstretched army and pro-government militia, which have also recently lost ground in the northwest and south.

Palmyra’s fall came just five days after the Islamist group seized Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar. Fighters loyal to the group have also consolidated their grip on Sirte in Libya, hometown of former leader Muammar Gaddafi, extending their reach in the region.