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Palmyra may be off limits to US airstrikes

A 2009 aerial photo of the ancient and modern (in the background) Palmyra, Syria.

CHRISTOPHE CHARON, ABACA PRESS/TNS

By TOM VANDEN BROOK | USA Today | Published: May 23, 2015

WASHINGTON (Tribune News Service) — The U.S.-led coalition bombing Islamic State terrorists in Syria is unlikely to attack the extremists who have seized the ancient city of Palmyra and its archaeological treasures, according to a senior Defense Department official.

There is a tacit understanding between the coalition and Bashar Assad's Syrian government that Palmyra and other areas, particularly those protected by modern air defenses, are off limits to airstrikes, said the official who was not authorized to speak publicly about operations in Iraq and Syria.

Another Defense department official would not rule out airstrikes in the future, but said they were unlikely in the short term due to the concerns about the air defenses, lack of intelligence to target precisely and the risk of civilian casualties.

"Just can't say definitively that you won't see strikes," the second official said. "We'll keep that option on the table."

On Wednesday, the chief of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) called on the international community to protect the city's civilians and its ancient treasures, which the organization has declared a World Heritage Site. The ruins, northeast of Damascus, date to a great city of the 1st and 2nd centuries whose architecture and art blends Roman, Persian and local influences.

Among its iconic sights is a long, colonnaded street.

"I am deeply concerned by the situation at the site of Palmyra," Irina Bokova, director-general of UNESCO, said in a statement. "The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population."

Palmyra's fate rests in the hands of militants from the Islamic State, also referred to as ISIS or ISIL. After routing Assad's forces from the city, ISIL fighters reportedly have executed those loyal to the regime.

The U.S.-led coalition has been flying daily sorties into Syria since September, striking targets mainly in the eastern part of the country outside the reach of Syrian anti-aircraft missiles. In March, Syrian forces shot down a U.S. Air Force Predator drone that apparently had drifted into restricted airspace in northwest Syria. Fighters, bombers, drones and other attack planes have destroyed buildings, vehicles and killed thousands of ISIL fighters.

Palmyra's fall follows another victory for ISIL, the capture of the Iraqi provincial capital of Ramadi. ISIL chased Iraqi security forces from Ramadi, the capital of Anbar province, on Sunday.

One of the few bright spots for the coalition was the successful raid last Saturday on the compound in eastern Syria where a top ISIL operative, Abu Sayyaf, was located. U.S. special operations troops killed Sayyaf, captured his wife and freed a slave the couple had been holding.

Also seized at Sayyaf's compound, USA TODAY has learned, was a trove of antiquities, including ancient coins and a bible. ISIL fighters apparently had plundered the priceless relics during their sweep through Iraq and Syria that began last summer. It appears ISIL planned to sell them on the black market to fund its operations rather than destroy them, the first official said

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