The recapturing of the historic city of Palmyra from Islamic State may represent a significant military strategic turning point as well as a psychological breakthrough in Syria's war. It is no small propaganda victory too for the regime of Bashir al Assad whose troops, with Russian and Iranian assistance, appear at last to have begun to turn the tide against IS which has seen its biggest setback since it declared a caliphate in Syria and Iraq in 2014.
The advance came with peace talks in Geneva set to resume yesterday – they then adjourned again with little progress. The talks were able to go ahead after a limited truce, sponsored by the US and Russia, took effect last month and appears to be holding – although it excludes Islamic State and the Nusra Front groups.
Palmyra, the ancient “Bride of the Desert” oasis, was seized 10 months ago and its rich heritage systematically vandalised by IS whose rule in the city, punctuated by multiple public beheadings, was brutal even by its own standards . Palmyra’s museum and 2,000-year-old extensive archaeological ruins had been the pride of Syria, one of the world’s greatest heritage sites, and the country’s top antiquities official, Maamoun Abdulkarim, rushed back to the city on Monday to assess the damage.
He said that although it was widespread, with most of the museum’s statues destroyed and artefacts torn from their mountings, some 80 per cent of the ruins appeared to remain intact. Most was capable of being restored, he said, and appealed to the UN’s cultural organisation, Unesco, for help.
International offers to rebuild the city's treasures are coming thick and fast. Russia, Assad's key ally, has declared the challenge as important as, and akin to, the rebuilding of Leningrad after the second World War. Vladimir Putin has promised to de-mine the heavily mined sites and to send experts from the Hermitage Museum to begin the work of salvage.
Two other international groups, one led by the Italian minister for culture, have offered new 3D printer technology to rebuild identical replicas of its fallen temples.