BEIRUT – Syria's historic town of Palmyra — home of priceless archaeological treasures and Roman ruins — has changed hands between government forces and the Islamic State group three times during the past 12 months. On Thursday, the Syrian military regained control of the town, which it had lost to IS in December.
Here's a look at Palmyra, which Syrians affectionately call the "Bride of the Desert."
AN ARCHEOLOGICAL TREASURE
A UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra boasts soaring, Roman-era colonnades, a monumental stone theater, and countess other ruins.
It was the capital of an Arab client state of the Roman Empire that briefly rebelled and carved out its own kingdom in the 3rd Century, led by Queen Zenobia. Before the war, it was Syria's top tourist attraction, drawing tens of thousands of visitors each year.
WINNING IT BACK FROM IS
A coalition of government forces and allied militias, backed by Russian air power, swept into Palmyra, following a weeks-long campaign that turned the tide against advancing IS militants in central Syria — the second campaign by Syrian forces for Palmyra in a year.
The Islamic State group first captured the city in May 2015. But the militants were driven out of the town last March, in an advance that Damascus and Moscow fashioned as a triumph for modernity and proof of their anti-IS credentials.
Palmyra was lost to IS again in December. With the government and Russia focused on a crushing military campaign against rebels in Aleppo, Islamic State militants took the town by surprise on Dec. 11.
The Islamic State group has destroyed scores of ancient sites across its self-styled Islamic caliphate in Syria and Iraq, viewing them as monuments to idolatry.
During the first time they controlled Palmyra, IS militants destroyed the Temple of Bel, which dated back to A.D. 32, and the Temple of Baalshamin, a structure of stone blocks several stories high fronted by six towering columns. The militants also blew up the Arch of Triumph, which had been built under the Roman emperor Septimius Severus between A.D. 193 and A.D. 211. In August 2015, they beheaded Khaled al-Asaad, an 81-year-old antiquities scholar who had devoted his life to studying Palmyra. His body was later hung from a Roman column.
They also demolished the town's notorious Tadmur prison, where thousands of opponents of President Bashar Assad and his father, the late President Hafez Assad, had been tortured and killed over three decades.
In their second stint in the town, the militants inflicted new damage to the facade of the Roman-era theater and the adjoining Tetrapylon monument.
But it hasn't been IS alone that looted and destroyed Palmyra.
Archeologists have decried the government's overwhelming show of force against the militants, fearing their airstrikes and artillery fire could further damage the monuments. And a 2014 report by a U.N. research agency disclosed satellite evidence of looting while the ruins were under Syrian military control.
Syrian opposition factions have also admitted to looting antiquities to fund their battle against Assad.
LOCATION AND STRATEGIC IMPORTANCE
A desert oasis surrounded by palm trees in central Syria, Palmyra is also a strategic crossroads linking the Syrian capital, Damascus, with the country's east and neighboring Iraq. Located 215 kilometers (155 miles) east of Damascus, the city was once home to 65,000 people before the Syrian civil war broke out in 2011.
The town, according to Mohammed Homsi, the director of the activist-run Palmyra News Network, is now almost entirely deserted. Islamic State fighters reportedly evacuated the last of their relatives earlier this week. The original residents left long ago, fleeing the various battles that have ravaged the town.
IS has suffered a string of defeats in both Syria and Iraq over the last year, losing several towns and cities it had captured in 2014. It is now under attack in Mosul, the last major urban center it controls in Iraq. A Kurdish-led Syrian force, backed by the U.S., is also pushing toward Raqqa, the group's de-facto capital in Syria, from the north.