US State Dept fails to say if ISIS must be pushed out of Palmyra or not

As the Syrian Army advanced on Palmyra, the US government seemed indifferent to the ancient city’s liberation from the hands of Islamic State. Only when pressed by reporters did the State Department call ISIS “probably a greater evil” than President Assad.

Backed by Russian warplanes, Syrian troops managed to enter the historic city on Thursday. Palmyra, or Tadmur, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which has been occupied by jihadists since last May.

Government forces have been making steady progress since launching a concerted offensive to retake the city, which, until its capture by jihadists, housed some of the world’s best-preserved monuments of antiquity. Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) militants destroyed two of Palmyra’s 2,000-year-old temples after seizing the city last year. 

The Syrian Army’s advance is also an important strategic victory, clearing a path toward another vital site – the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor, where government forces are under siege by the extremists.

However, this latest victory of Syrian government forces was not met with enthusiasm in Washington. In fact, State Department spokesman Mark Toner could not immediately say whether the US considered Palmyra’s liberation a positive development or not, suggesting there was little difference between IS and the “regime” of President Bashar Assad.

Less than 24 hours before the SAA’s major push, Toner was asked on Wednesday if the US would like to see “the regime retake Palmyra, or do you prefer that it stays in Daesh’s hands?” Daesh is a derogatory Arabic term for IS.

After talking about “alleged violations of the cessation of hostilities” by the “regime” and giving a non-answer, Toner was pressed to clarify his remarks.

“No, I mean, look, I mean, broadly speaking, it’s not a great choice, an either/or, but – which is worse, Daesh or the regime – but we think Daesh is probably the greater evil in this case,” Toner replied.

READ MORE: 9,000 sorties, 400 localities freed: What Russia has achieved during its 5-month Syria operation 

The liberation of Palmyra is just latest victory in a string of successes the Syrian Army has achieved since Russia began its anti-terror campaign in September. Supported by Russian air power, Damascus has managed to force terrorists out of Latakia and the northern part of Aleppo, the country’s biggest city and commercial hub in pre-war times. Syrian forces have also largely mopped up Hama and Homs Provinces in central Syria.