In a new move consolidating its grip in Syria, IS seized on Thursday Al-Tanaf, the last regime-held crossing on the border with Iraq, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said. With their gains in Palmyra earlier Thursday, the monitor said the jihadists now control half of Syria’s territory.
The monitor said IS control of Al-Tanaf, known as Al-Walid by Iraqis, means Syrian government forces have lost control over the porous border.
The Observatory said jihadists spread out Thursday through Palmyra, including at the archaeological site in the city’s southwest, and executed 17 people accused of “working with the regime.”
The Islamic State group seized Syria’s Palmyra on Thursday, as UNESCO warned that the destruction of the ancient city would be “an enormous loss to humanity.”
US President Barack Obama played down the developments, saying he didn’t think the US was “losing” to IS.
UNESCO chief Irina Bokova called Palmyra “the birthplace of human civilization. It belongs to the whole of humanity and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening.”
French President Francois Hollande said the world must “act” both to save Palmyra and against IS.
Syrian state media said loyalist troops withdrew after “a large number of IS terrorists entered the city” at the crossroads of key highways leading west to Damascus and Homs, and east to Iraq.
IS proclaimed Palmyra’s capture online and posted video and several pictures, including of a hospital and a prison and a military airbase but none of the ancient site.
The jihadists, notorious for demolishing archaeological treasures since declaring a “caliphate” last year straddling Iraq and Syria, fought their way into Palmyra on foot.
Known in Syria as “the pearl of the desert,” Palmyra is home to colonnaded alleys, elaborately decorated tombs and ancient Greco-Roman ruins.
IS sparked international outrage this year when it blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and smashed artifacts in the Mosul museum, both in Iraq.
Syria’s antiquities director Mamoun Abdulkarim now fears a similar fate awaits Palmyra, and urged the world to “mobilize” to save it.
“IS now dominates central Syria, a crossroads of primary importance,” said Fabrice Balanche, a French expert on Syria.
“Taking Palmyra opens the way to Damascus and Homs. Eventually, this axis can be threatened.”
IS has recently threatened a number of regime strongholds, including Deir Ezzor city in the east and military airports in the north and south.
“The capture of Palmyra leaves IS strongly placed to make more territorial gains from (Syrian President Bashar al-) Assad, at a time when the government is heavily occupied in the north and south,” said Matthew Henman, head of IHS Jane’s Terrorism and Insurgency Centre.
The jihadist victory also “reinforces IS’s position as the single opposition group that controls the most territory in Syria.”
IS ‘controls half of Syria’
IS now controls “more than 95,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) in Syria, which is 50 percent of the country’s territory, “the Observatory said.
It dominates the provinces of Deir Ezzor and Raqa and has a strong presence in Hasakeh, Aleppo, Homs and Hama.
It has also seized most of Syria’s oil and gas fields, using the income to fund expansion of its self-styled “caliphate.”
“IS controls large and contiguous territory with a lot of freedom of movement,” said Charlie Winter, researcher on jihadism at the Quilliam Foundation.
Palmyra’s takeover came days after IS seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi, their most significant victory since mid-2014 when they conquered swaths of land, sparking a US-led air campaign to support Baghdad.
On Thursday IS pushed further and seized Iraqi positions east of Ramadi, officials said.
Obama described the loss of Iraqi territory as a tactical setback and blamed it on a lack of training and reinforcements of Iraq’s own security forces.
“I don’t think we’re losing,” Obama told news magazine The Atlantic.
The Pentagon said Iraqi forces retreated from Ramadi partly because they incorrectly believed a sandstorm was preventing US-led aircraft from coming to their aid.
Meanwhile, a US official said airstrikes last year against Islamist extremists in Syria killed two children by mistake, the first time the American military acknowledged inflicting civilian casualties in the war.
“We regret the unintentional loss of lives,” Lieutenant General James Terry, head of the US-led air campaign against IS, said in a statement.
“The strikes were designed to destroy targets utilized by Khorasan group-affiliated extremists to meet and manufacture explosives,” a report on the incident said.
But the bombing killed two children — including the daughter of a militant — and caused “minor injuries” to two civilian workers who lived near the buildings that were targeted, it said.
In assessments prior to the air raid, there were no reports that children could be in the area, the probe concluded.
The airstrikes were carried out in accordance with extensive rules designed to avoid civilian deaths and the targets were deemed “valid military targets,” it said.
The report found no wrongdoing or negligence by military forces overseeing or carrying out the strikes.