Syrian government troops are pressing ahead with an offensive in the province of Homs, near Palmyra, a day after seizing the ancient city from Islamic State militants.
The Kremlin described the success of the Russian-backed operation to recapture the historic city as a “symbolic and important victory” and said Moscow had restored the potential of the Syrian army.
Monitoring groups said forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad had launched a series of operations against Isis near Palmyra, including in Qaryatain, a town with a significant Christian population that the militants took last year. Syrian state TV said Palmyra’s military airport had been reopened.
Assad’s forces lost Palmyra after a week-long siege by Isis last summer. The fall of the city sparked worldwide concerns because it contains some of the best preserved ruins from antiquity.
Isis, arguing that the monuments were idolatrous, destroyed the temples of Bel and Baalshamin and the arch of triumph.
But new images suggest that the historic part of the city escaped largely intact. Syrian archaeologists are beginning to arrive to assess the damage from the militants’ occupation.
“Eighty percent of the ruins are in good shape,” Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told the Agence France-Presse. “My expert colleagues arrive today in Palmyra.
“I have asked them to assess the stones and the old city. They are taking pictures of the damage and documenting everything, and then the restoration can begin.” He added that restoration efforts could take five years to complete.
Russia’s military intervention in Syria was launched in September, and had primarily targeted mainstream rebel groups rather than Isis. The operation in Palmyra was the first major strategic loss of territory by Isis to a Russian-backed offensive.
The Kremlin has already sought to portray the Syrian army as the singular partner against terrorism, and the Russian military said after the recapture of Palmyra it would use the city as a stepping stone for broader offensives against Isis strongholds of Raqqa and Deir ez-Zor.