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Russians, Syrians Fail to 'Watch Six' in Palmyra Rout: Pentagon

This file photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)
This file photo released on Sunday, May 17, 2015, by the Syrian official news agency SANA, shows the general view of the ancient Roman city of Palmyra, northeast of Damascus, Syria. (SANA via AP, File)

Syrian regime forces backed by Russia were so focused on attacking Aleppo that they were routed from the historic town of Palmyra 200 miles to the southeast, a U.S. military spokesman said Tuesday.

Fighters from the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, or ISIS, began attacking Palmyra, a World Heritage Site for its Roman ruins, last week but were beaten back initially by Russian airstrikes.

ISIS renewed the attack Sunday, and the forces of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad fled, leaving behind armor and artillery, said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman.

"They failed to watch their six, they were focusing so much on Aleppo," Davis said, referring to the Syrian and Russian onslaught against rebels clinging to eastern Aleppo that has caused yet another humanitarian crisis in Syria's five-year-old civil war.

Davis said the Syrian forces -- a mix of Syrian Alawite; Shiite Hezbollah fighters from Lebanon; and foreign fighters from Iran, Afghanistan and Chechnya -- were regrouping at a nearby airfield.

Assad had boasted of taking Palmyra from ISIS last May as a sign of the resurgence of his regime, and a Russian symphony orchestra played a concert there to demonstrate Assad's control.

Assad's government-run SANA news agency acknowledged the defeat, saying the Syrian troops retreated as an estimated 4,000 ISIS fighters attacked from multiple directions.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group, also confirmed that Palmyra had fallen to ISIS. Despite Russian air bombardment, the militant group "retook all of Palmyra after the Syrian army withdrew south of the city," the Observatory said.

A New Front Against Raqqa

Davis said that the Syrian Democratic forces, a mix of Syrian Kurdish and Arab fighters backed by the U.S., had opened a new front in their advance on Raqqa, the self-proclaimed ISIS capital about 105 miles north of Palmyra.

Elements of the SDF had crossed over the Euphrates River at the Tishrin Dam and were pressing south on a new avenue of approach to Raqqa against mixed resistance, Davis said.

In Aleppo, there were reports of a cease-fire following the takeover of the remaining rebel-held areas by the Syrians. Military action ceased with the fall of what had been Syria's largest city, said Vitaly Churkin, Russia's United Nations ambassador.

U.N. officials said there were reports of summary executions of survivors of the months-long siege of the city that now lay in ruins.

In another joint statement condemning the failure of the Obama administration to take action, Sens. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican and member of the committee, said reports of a cease-fire were "not a cause to celebrate, but a sure sign of the fate that awaits other Syrian cities."

The senators' joint statement said, "The Assad regime will use the cease-fire to reset its war machine and prepare to slaughter its way to victory across the rest of the country, which will undermine U.S. national security interests and increase the risk to U.S. troops serving in Syria."

Carter Visits Qayyarah West

In Iraq, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter visited the Qayyarah West airfield, the logistics hub for the offensive against Mosul, where he met with U.S. troops and joined Iraqi Chief of Staff Gen. Othman al-Ghanimi in awarding medals to members of the Iraqi Security Forces.

"This hasn't been an easy fight, won't be an easy fight" in Mosul, Carter said, adding that he had discussed the Mosul campaign with Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. "We agreed it's playing out pretty much according to the plan that he and I have been discussing together for these many months," Carter said.

At the Pentagon, Davis said Iraqi forces have retaken about 15 to 20 percent of the northwestern city since the Mosul campaign began on Oct. 17.

Since the drive on Mosul began, U.S. and coalition aircraft have dropped 6,602 munitions to back the Iraqi Security Forces, Davis said.

-- Richard Sisk can be reached at Richard.Sisk@Military.com.

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