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ISIS Launches New Offensive In Ancient Syrian City Of Palmyra

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, now a reminder of just how complicated the battle against ISIS really is. There can be progress in one place, like Mosul in Iraq, and then setbacks elsewhere. And in Syria, ISIS fighters have now struck again in the historic city of Palmyra. The extremists have been pushed out of that city in March. NPR's Alice Fordham reports on this fresh offensive by the militants.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: There are different versions of what ISIS did in Palmyra. Syrian state media say the radicals entered the city yesterday after 4,000 of their men stormed it in an attack. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a monitor based in the U.K., says ISIS took the entire city a day earlier. There were counterattacks.

The Russian allies of President Bashar al Assad say they strafed ISIS Saturday, and the U.S.-led coalition against ISIS conducted the biggest air strike they've done to date on ISIS near there last week. So what's clear is that ISIS staged a big, aggressive offensive despite global forces mobilized against them. And this is a surprise because the militants have been in retreat in Syria and in neighboring Iraq. Here's U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter speaking about ISIS in Iraq this weekend.

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SEC OF DEFENSE ASH CARTER: A significant part of their leadership has been killed. And the rest of it, knowing that they're being hunted, are therefore forced to behave like hunted men.

FORDHAM: Off record, U.S. officials have said they hope the fight against ISIS will be largely over before the handover of the White House to Donald Trump in January. To understand how the militants were able to hit back like this, I asked Syria analyst Sam Heller, who points out that the main holding force in Palmyra was the Syrian army, a force depleted by civil war.

SAM HELLER: I think it demonstrates the persistent weakness and the manpower concerns of the Assad regime and its military, even with support from its Russian and Iranian allies.

FORDHAM: Basically, the Syrian army has to pick its battles. And it's focusing on the populous west of the country, where it's fighting against Syrian rebels, for example, in the city of Aleppo, over the central desert where Palmyra is. And that made Palmyra a tempting target for ISIS to show it can still wreak havoc. Alice Fordham, NPR News, Beirut. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.