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Rise of Islamic State could lead to permanent fragmentation of Middle East -

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KIM LANDERS: Islamic State forces are on the offensive across Syria and Iraq and there's growing anxiety about whether the militants can be stopped.

The group's latest conquests include the historic Syrian city of Palmyra and the strategically important city of Ramadi in Iraq.

The fall of Palmyra has many concerned about the historical treasures, which include ancient Roman ruins.

And, more disturbingly, reports are emerging that the militants are carrying out civilian massacres.

Analysts say it could be the start of a permanent fragmentation of the region along tribal and religious lines.

Michael Edwards reports.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Despite the frequent release of videos showing grisly beheadings and violence on an almost industrial scale, details about events in Syria are often hard to confirm.

But the militant extremists are now claiming to have taken full control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra.

Vision showing IS fighters in the centre of the city is now on the internet. The footage also purports to show locals welcoming the militants.

The United Nations says up to a third of the city's residents have fled Islamic State.

The capture of the city has many concerned about its world-famous archaeological sites. Palmyra is an ancient World Heritage site and home to renowned Roman-era ruins including well-preserved temples, colonnades and a theatre.

The radical group has previously destroyed antiquities and monuments in Iraq and there are fears it might do the same to Palmyra.

Maamoun Abdulkarim is Syria's antiquities and museums chief.

MAAMOUN ABDULKARIM (translation): Imagine: an archaeological city becomes a battlefield between criminals and the city's defenders. But in the end, there is Syrian determination and the Syrian people will not give up Palmyra. They will defend it with all their strength in order to prevent IS fighters from entering the city.

But there are also international responsibilities and we need the international community.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Syria has already seen many of its historical sites damaged or destroyed by conflict. These include 11th century Crusader castle, Crac des Chevaliers, and Aleppo's covered market.

Historian Professor Kevin Butcher from the University of Warwick told CNN that Palmyra's historical worth is impossible to calculate and its destruction would be a tragedy.

KEVIN BUTCHER: I mean, I am very worried about the situation with the site and it would be deeply tragic if this site were to be destroyed. Obviously some of the buildings are extremely solid and I suspect that they probably won't necessarily go after the more solid buildings. But things like the artefacts or the paintings in tombs: these are the kinds of things that can be easily defaced.

Another problem is that the archaeology is: if you look at the site, in fact it's not... The surface of the site: the archaeology is not very far below the surface. And so this means that it's quite easy to access it by digging or bulldozing. It's not like some other sites that have and archaeology that goes much, much deeper.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Islamic State's advance across Syria has been nothing short of astonishing.

The group now claims control of around 50 per cent of the embattled country and its fighters could soon be within striking distance of the capital, Damascus.

Its power also seems to be increasing across Iraq as it consolidates control of its latest conquest, the city of Ramadi.

And IS has recently seized the last remaining government-controlled border crossing between Iraq and Syria.

Many experts believe the Middle East as we know it will never be the same again.

Peter Jennings, the executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, who is an expert on the Middle East, spoke to ABC Local Radio in Melbourne.

PETER JENNINGS: I think we're a few years into what is probably going to be a sort of a decade-long redesign of the region, where many of the existing countries will be swept away through popular movements, through extremist terrorism. And we're going to find that there will be a completely redesigned Middle East emerge from the ashes of this.

MICHAEL EDWARDS: Islamic State's victories have also come despite an air campaign against it, led by the United States.

But president Barack Obama is playing down the group's recent successes, describing them as "tactical" and insisting that the long-term campaign to destabilize and destroy IS is still on track.

KIM LANDERS: Michael Edwards.