Syrian pro-government forces were poised to launch an assault to retake the Islamic State-held city of Palmyra, as Washington and Moscow meet on Thursday to discuss the fraught peace talks.
The Islamic State (IS) group overran the city dubbed the “Pearl of the Desert” last May, and it has since blown up UNESCO-listed temples and looted relics dating back thousands of years.
Its recapture would be a strategic as well as symbolic victory for President Bashar al-Assad, since whoever controls it also controls the vast desert extending from central Syria to the Iraqi border, experts say.
Loyalists backed by Russian air strikes were “800 metres (yards) from Palmyra” and now control areas linking it to Damascus and Syria`s third city Homs, a Syrian security source said.
“The army is now at (the southern and southwestern) entrances to the city and is preparing to begin the battle to liberate Palmyra,” the source said.
Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said earlier Wednesday that regime forces were two kilometres (one mile) south of Palmyra and five kilometres (three miles) southwest of the city.
Meanwhile, there is some hope that high-level US-Russian meetings on Thursday could deliver the momentum needed to move the Geneva peace talks to a new round.
US Secretary of State John Kerry will meet President Vladimir Putin and Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov to gauge whether Moscow is ready to discuss ways to ease its ally Assad from power.
With the indirect negotiations in Geneva proving to be sluggish, all eyes are on Moscow since the two powers hold significant sway over the opposing sides in Syria`s devastating conflict.”What we`re looking for, and what we`ve been looking for for a long time is how are we going to transition away from Assad`s leadership,” a senior US official told reporters.
“On the Russian side, there`s only one decision maker and you need to be in the room with him to evaluate what`s possible,” the State Department official added.
The official said a shaky ceasefire between the regime and rebel forces and Russia`s partial withdrawal could mark an opening for Putin to shift his stance on Assad.
The High Negotiations Committee, the main Syrian opposition body, said it hoped that after the Kerry-Kremlin talks “a clear message will be sent to Bashar al-Assad: He cannot continue to paralyse the political transition that the Syrian people are demanding”.