Islamic State fighters tightened their grip on the historic city of Palmyra in Syria, days after capturing a provincial capital in neighboring Iraq, suggesting the growing momentum of the group which a monitor says now holds half of Syrian territory.

The twin successes pile pressure not just on Damascus and Baghdad, but also throw doubt on U.S. strategy to rely almost exclusively on air strikes to defeat Islamic State.

Extending its reach in the region, fighters loyal to the Sunni Muslim group have also consolidated their grip on the Libyan city of Sirte, hometown of former leader Muammar Gaddafi.

Islamic State said in a statement posted by followers on Twitter on Thursday it was in full charge of Palmyra, including its military bases, marking the first time it had taken a city directly from the Syrian military and allied forces.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said

the al Qaeda offshoot now controls more than half of Syrian territory following more than four years of conflict which grew out of an uprising against President Bashar al-Assad.

The ultra hardline group has destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might now devastate Palmyra, home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theater.

The U.N. cultural agency UNESCO describes the site as a historical crossroads between the Roman Empire, India, China and ancient Persia and a testament to the world’s diverse heritage.

“We may have different beliefs… different views, but we have to protect such incredible vestiges of human history,” UNESCO Director General Irina Bokova told Reuters Television… see more

source: reuters