Islamic State armed group captures historic Syrian city of Palmyra

The Islamic State armed group has seized control of the 2,000-year-old desert city of Palmyra, exposing its remarkable and well-preserved antiquities to possible imminent destruction and looting.

Roman columns in Palmira, Syria.
Roman columns in Palmira, Syria. wikipédia

“What is happening to Palmyra is a real threat, it’s absolutely horrible,” said archaeologist Martin Makinson to RFI. “It’s basically the jewel of the crown of Middle Eastern heritage.”

Activists and the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the ancient Syrian city began to fall on Wednesday as forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad began to withdraw and retreat to western strongholds.

By the following day, the group said it had full control as it now holds sway over half of the country, including the majority of Syria’s oil fields.

“Palmyra is an extraordinary World Heritage site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra would be not just a war crime but…an enormous loss to humanity,” said Irina Bokova, the chief of the United Nation’s education and cultural agency.

Unesco’s Assistant Director-General for Culture Alfredo Pérez de Arminan also told RFI that Palmyra is so important because it provides humankind a common understanding of the past.

“It is a symbol of a crossroads of civilizations and has been one of the most important cultural and trade places in the region in antiquity,” de Arminan said, adding that there must be a collective, international commitment to protecting heritage sites.

Makinson, who has visited Palmyra and is affiliated with the Association for the Protection of Syrian Archaeology, also said that its destruction would be like blowing up Machu Picchu in Peru or Hadrian’s Wall in the UK.

However, he adds that while the looming threat over this ancient city is very worrisome, similar artefacts and historical sites have already been destroyed since the start of Syria’s war five years ago, and not only at the hands of the Islamic State.

“Unfortunately ISIS is not the sole prime mover behind the looting of antiquities in both Iraq and Syria,” said Makinson. “Looting in Iraq went on during the embargo days in the 1990s and early 2000s…and when it comes to Syria there have been destructions from the air, by regime warplanes for example.”

Islamic State fighters have cast such artefacts as a form of idolatry and over again, have either slashed ancient statues and archaeological sites to rubble -- shown in propaganda videos -- or placed them on the black market for profit.

The capture of Palmyra, which is home to the temple of Baal, massive tombs and an ancient citedal, is also bound to put renewed pressure on the anti-ISIS coalition as it comes just days after the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.

“It demonstrates that ISIS is still able despite all the anti-ISIS coalition bombing and the forces that oppose it to capture a major urban and cultural center like Palmyra, that is also of strategic importance as well as it sits on the major roads that cross Syria from west to east,” said Chris Doyle, the director of the Council for Arab-British Understanding (Caabu).

He adds that while the coalition appears bereft of a working strategy, the Islamic State currently has the winning game plan.

“This means that surely those who wish to destroy ISIS, to even diminish its power, have to rethink its strategy that bombing from the air has simply not worked and is unlikely to work in the future,” Doyle said.

The Islamic State group has also reportedly taken control of major facilities in and around the city, including the Tadmur military prison, which takes its modern day name and has become synonymous with decades of repression in Syria.

This is also a reminder that Palmyra, home to some 70,000 people, is not just a relic of the past, albeit an important one.

A Palmyra resident, who wished to remain anonymous, said that the regime’s announcement that civilians had been evacuated was 100 percent false and that only some high ranking officials were removed.

The resident and activist added that Islamic State fighters are currently pursuing forces loyal to Assad and have not approached the historic parts of Palmyra yet.

The Syrian conflict is in its fifth year and has claimed an estimated 220,000 lives.

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