Antiquities at risk: Islamic State surrounds ancient ruins of Palmyra

The central Syrian town holds strategic importance for the government in Damascus and is home to an important military airbase. The offensive began Monday and pits Islamic State against regime forces and local militia. 

Khaled Al Hariri/Reuters/File
The sun sets behind ruined columns at the historical city of Palmyra, in the Syrian desert, some 150 miles northeast the capital of Damascus.

A lightning Islamic State offensive in the central Syrian Desert has put the jihadist group at the gates of the ancient city of Palmyra, a UNESCO world heritage site, fanning fears for the fate of its ruins.

It is also raising the prospect of a drawn-out battle in this strategic region, home to one of Syria’s largest weapons depots, a military airbase, and valuable gas fields that have changed hands more than once during the war.

Palmyra, also known as Tadmor, is one of the most impressive relics of the ancient world, settled as early as the third millennium BC. Marc Antony and the early Romans found it to be an elusive prize, but historians believe it was integrated into the Syrian Province by the reign of Nero in the first century AD.

The Syrian conflict has already taken a toll on the ruins of Palmyra: The regime has dug defensive trenches and dirt mounts, while rebels have raided ancient tombs to sell on the illicit antiquities market. But an even larger threat comes from the self-described Islamic State (IS), which has alternately looted or destroyed the treasures of ancient Middle East civilizations in the territories it has conquered.

Palmyra “represents an irreplaceable treasure for the Syrian people and for the world,” UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said Thursday. “I appeal to all parties to protect Palmyra and make every effort to prevent its destruction.”

Cultural property expert France Desmarais says IS victory there would be “devastating for the preservation of one of the most important cultural and historical sites of Syria.” It would also be “alarming as it would give IS control over a larger portion of Syria” in an area linking to Iraq to the east and the capital Damascus to the southwest.

One ray of hope is that IS doesn’t generally destroy war loot that it can sell but its fighters’ proximity to the ruins, reportedly within a mile, is cause for major concern.

“They are predictable and unpredictable at the same time, so it is difficult to assess what they would or wouldn't destroy,” says Ms. Desmarais, director of programs and development at the International Council of Museums. The Paris-based group has published an emergency red list of Syrian cultural objects at risk to help antiquities experts and law enforcement agents identify stolen objects.

“They could destroy sections of the ruins for propaganda, to show that they are unstoppable and capable of destroying any proof of past history.”

Assault on three fronts

Islamic State fighters began a major attack on the city of Palmyra on Monday, approaching it from the north and east. On the first day they took the nearby town of Sukhna, which sits on the road to the eastern Syrian city of Deir Ezzor, an IS stronghold. They also took the village of Al-Amariya on the northern edge of the city.

By Wednesday, IS fighters had opened a third front to the south, approaching Palmyra from the oasis, where a network of date and olive groves frames the vast complex of Roman-era ruins. The Syrian regime has so far kept its grip on a military security branch in the west, its infamous Tadmor prison, and the military airport, according to local sources contacted via social media.

“The caliphate soldiers have carried out a quality attack against the Nuseiri apostates in the city of Palmyra,” boasted Radio Raqqa, a mouthpiece for the Sunni jihadists. Nuseiri is a derogatory term used to refer to President Bashar al-Assad and his minority Alawite sect, an offshoot of Shia Islam. “The fight is still underway between soldiers of the merciful and the soldiers of the devil.”

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, which draws on a network of activists on the ground for its information, said IS had executed 26 civilians captured near Palmyra, 10 of whom were beheaded on charges of “collaborating with the regime.”

Videos posted on the IS-linked channel Al-Amaq show rockets being fired in the direction of regime artillery positions at the signal tower next to the 13th century citadel, a strategic highpoint looking down on the historic site and the contemporary city.

Tourism and tribalism

Modern Palmyra has remained under tight regime control except for several months at the end of 2011. An estimated 200,000 residents live there, half of them refugees from other areas. Before the war, Palmyra lived off agriculture, livestock, and a thriving tourism industry that made the most of the ruins, local Bedouin traditions, and spectacular sunrises and sunsets.

Most of the rebels from this city have scattered to other areas in Syria or found shelter in neighboring countries. While many are with the moderate Free Syrian Army, a significant portion has joined the ranks of IS and Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Others have sought to form tribal units that could act as counterweights to the extremists. 

Regime supporters, meanwhile, were absorbed into neighborhood-based militias. Opposition activists have long claimed that Tadmor’s military airport is used as an entry point to bring supplies and supporters in from Iran, one of the main backers of the Assad regime. 

“If the Islamic State is able to seize the regime’s weapon and fuel depots in this area they will be able to reach all the way to Beirut and Jerusalem,” says Abu Ali al-Badia, a Palmyra native monitoring developments from Turkey.  “There are more than 150 types of weapons in the arms depot just north of the city. It is one of Syria’s largest.”

The regime has already begun sending reinforcements from Homs to Palmyra in a bid to defend strategic supply routes to Deir Ezzor, where the regime still holds a military airport. But the gains that IS has already made in the Syrian Desert, or Badia, mark a dangerous development for President Assad’s increasingly overstretched forces, according to Syrian analyst Malik al-Abdeh.

“They’ve lost significant territory so far,” says Mr. Abdeh. “If you allow IS to control Tadmor , essentially you are inviting attacks on Damascus from the northeast and also Homs from the east.”

Abdeh says the fight for the region could be lengthy and complex.“It is all a question of whether the regime will prioritize holding Palmyra over other areas,” he says.

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