Islamic State seized full control of both ancient and modern Palmyra in central Syria on Thursday, just days after it captured a provincial capital in neighbouring Iraq, suggesting momentum is building for the ultra-hardline group.
The twin successes pile pressure not just on Damascus and Baghdad, but also throws doubt on US strategy to rely almost exclusively on air strikes to defeat the Sunni Muslim movement, which is an offshoot of al Qaeda.
Islamic State said in a statement posted by followers on Twitter that it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military installations, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from the Syrian military and allied forces.
The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said
Islamic State now controls more than half of Syrian territory following more than four years of civil war against the autocratic rule of President Bashar al-Assad.
The radical group has destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, an ancient World Heritage site and home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.
“This is the fall of a civilisation,” Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim told by telephone on Thursday.
“Human, civilised society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.”
Clashes in the area since Wednesday killed at least 100 pro-government fighters, said Rami Abdulrahman, head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which bases its information on a network of sources on the ground.
Islamic State said retreating pro-government forces had left behind many dead, but gave no precise figures.
The assault on the city is part of a westward advance by Islamic State that is adding to pressures on Assad’s overstretched army and pro-government militia, which have also recently lost ground in the northwest and south.
Palmyra’s fall came just five days after the Islamist group seized Ramadi, capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.