DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian forces strengthened their hold on Palmyra on Monday and pushed forward against the Islamic State jihadist group after dealing it a major blow by retaking the ancient city.
Government troops and allied militia, backed by Russian air and ground support, overran Palmyra on Sunday morning after nearly 10 months of IS rule.
President Bashar Assad hailed the victory as “fresh proof of the efficiency of the Syrian army and its allies in fighting terrorism.”
Regime forces turned to nearby IS-held towns on Monday, including Al-Qaryatain, southwest of Palmyra, and Sukhnah towards the northeast.
“The army was concentrated around Al-Qaryatain, and today [Monday] the military operations began there,” a military source in Palmyra told AFP.
“That is the next goal for the Syrian army. They also have their eyes on Sukhnah.”
The head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, Rami Abdel Rahman, said the capture of Sukhnah would bring government forces to the gates of oil-rich Deir Ezzor province, an IS bastion.
IS overran Palmyra — a UNESCO world heritage site known as the “Pearl of the Desert” — in May 2015 and used its ancient amphitheatre for public executions as the world watched in horror.
The extremist group blew up temples and tower tombs, as part of it campaign against pre-Islamic monuments it considers “blasphemous.”
‘Undeniable loss’ for IS
As government troops made their final push on Sunday, IS militants fled to Sukhnah and to Deir Ezzor in the Euphrates valley further east.
The US-based Soufan Group said IS “suffered an undeniable loss” with its defeat in Palmyra.
The jihadist organisation has come under growing pressure from Syrian and Iraqi forces set on breaking apart its self-proclaimed “caliphate.”
“While the group maintains the ability to seize minor towns in both Iraq and Syria, it is facing a larger tactical defeat,” the Soufan Group said in a briefing paper.
The Syrian army has vowed to build on its recapture of Palmyra with assaults on other IS-held towns, including the jihadists’ de facto Syrian capital Raqa to the north.
A second government fighter in Palmyra told AFP the army’s immediate concern was “securing the area around Palmyra specifically, and eastern parts of Homs province in general.”
Then, government forces would concentrate on “clearing the [IS] fighters that fled from Palmyra to nearby areas.”
Finally, they would aim to “find out what happened to the families that were in Palmyra… We’re afraid they’ve been kidnapped.”
Some 15,000 of Palmyra’s 70,000 residents had stayed on under IS rule.