Beirut: Syrian regime forces were locked in fierce clashes with Islamic State group jihadists on Tuesday on the outskirts of a key town near the ancient city of Palmyra, a monitor said. Just two days after seizing Palmyra from IS, pro-government fighters advanced southwest towards the jihadist-held town of Al-Qaryatain.
They seized a series of hilltops overlooking the town during the night and battled IS militants into the afternoon, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. The Britain-based monitor said the troops were backed by both Syrian and Russian air raids.
IS seized Al-Qaryatain in August 2015, kidnapping at least 230 people, including dozens of Christians, and razing its famed Mar Elian monastery. The town lies on a key road linking Palmyra with the Qalamun region of Damascus province to the west. Government forces overran Palmyra on Sunday and vowed to use the city as a launchpad for military operations against other IS-held towns in the area.
A military source told AFP on Monday that Al-Qaryatain was “the next goal for the Syrian army” as it consolidated its control around Palmyra. In September, Moscow deployed its air force to back fighters loyal to President Bashar al-Assad. It has drawn down its forces in recent weeks but has vowed to keep striking “terrorist groups” like IS.
Meanwhile, France on Tuesday hailed the recapture by Syrian forces of the ancient city of Palmyra as “positive news” but stressed Damascus bore the main blame for the war in Syria. “The advances against Daesh cannot erase the fact that the (Syrian) regime bears the main responsibility for the conflict and its 270,000 dead over the past five years,” said foreign ministry spokesman Romain Nadal, using an alternate name for the Islamic State (IS) jihadist group, also known by the acronyms of ISIS and ISIL.
Speaking at a press briefing, Nadal reiterated France’s call for a halt to attacks on “moderate opposition groups” in Syria. Russian-backed Syrian forces recaptured the oasis city known as the “Pearl of the Desert” on Sunday. Analysts said the government’s seizure of the UNESCO World Heritage site was the biggest blow so far in the war against IS and a major coup both for Damascus and Moscow. It was a strategic as well as symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, providing control of the surrounding desert all the way to the Iraqi border, they said.