Syria: U.S. aids liberation of Palmyra from ISIS

ISIS, Palmyra, Kids, Teen, Executioners, Video Still
ISIS, Palmyra, Kids, Teen, Executioners, Video Still

ISIS first captured the ancient city of Palmyra, Syria in May of 2015. Palmyra is a treasured archeological site listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

At that time, in 2015, ISIS rounded up captured Syrian Army members who had been defending the city and the Islamic State had their “Caliphate Cubs” execute the army members.

ISIS forced the townspeople into the ancient amphitheater to witness the executions, which was also a message to the town to not disobey the Islamic Laws which were immediately put in place.

At that time, ISIS also kidnapped the head of antiquities of Palmyra, Khaled Assad, an 82-yr old archeologist who had been in charge of the ancient site for many years. ISIS tortured him for 30 days, trying to get him to reveal where Palmyra’s valuable treasures from the museum were hidden.

Khaled Assad had hidden the treasures when word came that ISIS was heading towards Palmyra. But even after weeks of torture, the 82-yr old Assad did not give up the treasures, so ISIS beheaded him in front of the townspeople and then hung his headless, tortured body on a giant ancient column in the city center for weeks, for all the town to see.

Assad was well-known and beloved by the townspeople, so this was a horrific event for them to witness.

From that time on, ISIS began blowing up the archeological sites and bludgeoning precious statues. Many are now completely destroyed, gone forever.

For two years, Palmyra exchanged hands four times, with the Syrian Army recapturing Palmyra from ISIS, only to lose it soon afterwards. Each time, ISIS brought in more tanks and more advanced weapons.

During this period, the Syrian Army was spread very thin, fighting more than ten different terrorist groups inside Syria, who had placed themselves in various regions throughout Syria–for the specific purpose of making it difficult for the Syrian Army to be everywhere at once.

On December 13, 2016, between 4,000 – 5,000 Islamic State fighters assaulted the ancient city of Palmyra from several flanks, causing the Syrian Army to withdraw to more defensible positions.

Approximately 1,000 Syrian Army soldiers were stationed at Palmyra — outnumbered by ISIS by at least 4-1.

During this battle, Palmyra was lost to ISIS once again, and in addition to capturing Palmyra, ISIS also seized the Syrian military’s airbase, the Hayyan gas field and al-Dawa village.

On December 16, 2016, ISIS unleashed several suicide bombers at the Syrian Army’s defenses along the two main roads to Palmyra. The massive explosions could be heard many miles away.

Following the suicide bombings, ISIS then stormed Syrian Army positions, resulting in fighting that lasted days. The Syrian Army’s paratrooper division was then deployed. The paratroopers parachuted into the western outskirts of the airbase after the Palmyra-Homs Road was closed due to the security threat posed by ISIS.

ISIS was driven back and at least 70 ISIS members were killed.

Meanwhile, the Russian Air Force carried out sorties throughout the day, thus enabling the Syrian Army to further drive back ISIS forces, killing at least 35 more militants before securing the airbase.

On December 18, the Syrian Army conducted a large-scale cleansing operation around the airbase and then expanded the buffer-zone around the perimeters. The Syrian Army was then able to liberate the city of Palmyra from ISIS.

Yet once again, ISIS rallied and entered Palmyra with more tanks and weapons and recaptured Palmyra and the airbase in January. When ISIS took the city in January, they beheaded twelve townspeople, some of whom were teachers.

Eight others were shot, four were Syrian Army members. Some of the executions took place at the Roman amphitheater in front of the townspeople.

Now, during the last few weeks of February, there has been daily fighting between the Syrian Army and ISIS, and with the help of Russian air strikes, progress was being made. But the airbase was under continued heavy attacks and much of the fighting took place there, thus hindering the progress of recapturing Palmyra from ISIS.

With the backing of the Russian Air Force this last week, the Syrian Army was able to recapture the Palmyra airbase. The Russian Air Force destroyed several of the Islamic State’s tanks at the airbase.

During the ground fighting in the city, a Russian soldier was critically injured when an IED blew up. Russian IED experts have announced that ISIS has planted IEDs throughout the city and in the archaeological sites.

According to a Russian military spokesperson, they received information about a very large amount of explosives being moved to Palmyra from the countryside and that ISIS was planning to further destroy the World Cultural Heritage sites.

For the very first time, in order to aid the Syrian Army in liberating Palmyra from ISIS, Russian and U.S. air forces coordinated an attack against the Islamic State’s weapons and tank supply route that were also transporting explosives.

U.S. warplanes conducted several air strikes over the eastern countryside of Palmyra and successfully hit ISIS on the Palmyra-Sukkana Road, the Islamic State’s main supply route. These U.S airstrikes helped the Syrian Army and Russian military retake the city by cutting off ISIS weapons, explosives and tanks.

As of March 3, 2017, Palmyra was completely liberated from ISIS.

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Cheri Berens lives in Egypt working as a researcher for the Egyptian Ministry of Culture. She experienced Egypt’s 2011 and 2013 revolutions and witnessed the Muslim Brotherhood takeover and violence that followed.