DAMASCUS – Syrian government forces backed by Russian airstrikes advanced swiftly in central Syria on Wednesday, seizing high ground around Palmyra and positioning themselves to recapture the historic town held by the Islamic State group.
The troops, supported by Lebanese Shiite militiamen fighting on the side of the Damascus government reached to within 3 kms (1.8 miles) of the town, according to the state TV broadcaster. In Lebanon, the militant Hezbollah group’s television station broadcast footage of the troops, advancing single file through a desert landscape as helicopter gunships provided cover.
“God willing, within few hours we will enter and secure the town,” one officer told the Syrian Ikhbariya TV, as a group of soldiers broke into chants in support of President Bashar Assad. The station was broadcasting live from a road reportedly on the outskirts of Palmyra.
Recapturing the town would be a significant victory for the army and its Russian allies. Russia withdrew most of its forces and aircraft from Syria last week after a months-long bombing campaign that succeeded in turning the tide of the war again in Assad’s favor.
However, Moscow said it was keeping its bases in Syria and would continue to carry out airstrikes against the Islamic State group and other extremists.
The push was from the west and south of Palmyra and Syrian forces were also closing in on the Islamic State-held town of Qaryatain in central Syria, Homs Gov. Talal Barazi said.
“There is continuous progress by the army from all directions,” Barazi told The Associated Press by phone, adding that he expected “positive results” over the next few days.
In the push on Palmyra, which started in earnest last week, Syrian government forces have been backed by intense Russian airstrikes.
Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage Site affectionately known by Syrians as the “bride of the desert,” has been in the hands of the Islamic State group since the extremists captured it last May. The seizure signified a major coup for Islamic State, which emerged out of al-Qaida to capture large swaths of Syria and neighboring Iraq in 2014.
The extremists cast themselves as Islamic warriors in an apocalyptic battle with Western civilizations, which they call “crusaders.”
In Palmyra, the Islamic State destroyed many of the town’s Roman-era relics, including the 2,000-year-old Temple of Bel and the iconic Arch of Triumph, and also killed dozens of captive Syrian soldiers and dissidents from Islamic State in public slayings at the town’s grand roman theater and other ruins.
Along with blowing up priceless archaeological treasures, among the first destructions Islamic State carried out in Palmyra was the demolishing of the town’s infamous Tadmur prison, where thousands of Syrian government opponents had been imprisoned and tortured over the years.
The advance on Palmyra comes against the backdrop of Syrian peace talks currently underway in Geneva between representative of the Damascus government and the Western-backed opposition. The talks have been boosted by a Russia-U.S.-brokered cease-fire that has mostly held since late February.
The Islamic State group and other militant factions, such as Syria’s al-Qaida branch known as the Nusra Front, are not part of the truce.
On Wednesday, Syria’s U.N. ambassador and head of the government team, Bashar Ja’afari, said he was handed a proposal by U.N. Special Envoy Staffan De Mistura.
Ja’afari told reporters in Geneva that the government side would take the proposal back to Damascus and study it, and would respond during the next round of negotiations, tentatively scheduled for April.
It was not clear if this meant government negotiators were pulling out of the talks before they are officially to adjourn on Thursday.
The negotiations have been held up over the question of Assad’s role in any political transition to wind down the five-year conflict. The opposition has said Assad must step down as a precondition to any transition, while the government has refused to discuss his departure.
The U.N. envoy said Tuesday the two parties had not yet discussed the matter of Assad’s future.
Also on Wednesday, the International Committee of the Red Cross said that more than 70,000 people had received the first aid in months in the central city of al-Houla.
In a statement, it said that a joint convoy of the ICRC, the Syrian Arab Red Crescent and the United Nations on Tuesday reached several villages in the region of al-Houla, north of Homs, to deliver food, medicine and water supply equipment.
The people of the city “have been facing severe hardship for a long time,” said the ICRC’s head of office in Homs, Majda Flihi, who led the aid delivery team. “They are farmers but they cannot farm anymore. They have livestock but it cannot be fed properly as peoples’ fields have now become front lines.”
Al-Houla has been under siege since 2012 and has been the scene of heavy fighting for months. The recent lull in fighting has allowed humanitarian organizations to access the area.