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In Syria, Ancient City of Palmyra Still a Battleground

palmyra concert
The conductor Valery Gergiev, leads a performance by the Mariinsky Symphony Orchestra, during the concert at the UNESCO world heritage site of Palmyra, Syria, 5 May 2016. Photo Boaz Guttman ©Flickr

The ancient and strategic city of Palmyra fell to Islamic State (IS) in May 2015. Ten months later, on 27 March 2016, the Syrian army, backed by Russian forces, recaptured the city, an event largely viewed as a turning point in the war against ‘the terrorists’.

The victory followed weeks of intense fighting with IS and was achieved with vigorous air support from Russian and Syrian warplanes, a high-ranking member of the Syrian army told Reuters. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights (SOHR) said that roughly 400 IS fighters and 200 government soldiers had been killed in the clashes.

On 5 May 2016, Russia staged a triumphant concert titled ‘With a Prayer from Palmyra: Music Revives the Ancient Walls’, performed by the Kremlin’s favourite conductor, Valery Gergiev, in the city’s theatre. During the concert, Russian President Vladimir Putin was beamed in live from Sochi. In an address broadcast from a video screen on the main stage, Putin hailed the operation to “liberate Palmyra”, saying that the concert was dedicated to the victims of “international terrorism”, which he called a “terrible evil”.

Despite this upbeat message, photographs released after the recapture showed the extent of the destruction of the city’s 2,000-year-old antiquities. A number of remarkable monuments, including the Arch of Triumph, the Temple of Baalshamin and the iconic Temple of Bel, were left in ruins after 12 months of IS occupation. The militant group also looted Palmyra’s museums and vandalized its precious exhibits.

Palmyra ruins damages museum
Destroyed statues at the damaged Palmyra Museum, in Palmyra city, Syria. Photo AP ©Hollandse Hoogte ⁃ Uncredited

The damage was particularly extensive at the National Museum of Palmyra, which sits within the UNESCO World Heritage site. Although more of the external buildings, including the ancient theatre, survived better than previously feared, the destruction inside the museum appears to have been devastating, with wanton disregard for the archaeological and cultural value of the artefacts. Tombs were broken open and heads systematically removed from statues. On the rocks at the entrance to the Temple of Bel, jihadists wrote in black: ‘The Islamic State. No entry for civilians or brothers [fighters]’. While the temple’s outer walls, main entrance and courtyard have survived, the main cella or prayer chamber was destroyed. Where the Temple of Baalshamin once stood, only four columns now remain. The remains of the Arch of Triumph, dating back to the reign of the Roman Emperor Severus in the 3rd century, lie on the ground, with only the two columns that once supported the central crown still standing. It is likely to be relatively easy to restore the arch, which was previously repaired in the 1930s.

Syria’s current head of antiquities and museums, Maamoun Abdulkarim, said that demining experts had removed 150 bombs IS planted in the area. However, he added that the team could not even reach some remote sites – including burial places – because there were still “hundreds of mines”.

He claimed that many of the artefacts had been evacuated to government-held Damascus after the city was liberated. “All the gold artefacts that were evacuated to Damascus weighed about 100-200 ounces in the form of small gold statues and ancient jewellery,” he said. He also confirmed that Damascus was able to recover many damaged statues that IS had been unable to move. These include the 15-tonne remnants of the 2nd-century Lion of al-Lat, which was one of the first objects to be targeted by the extremist group.

One week after the recapture of the city, Russian tanks and military equipment rolled into Palmyra to assist in the clean-up process. But a gruesome discovery cast light on the jihadists’ short but brutal reign. Syrian troops uncovered a mass grave containing 42 bodies, a military source confirmed. The victims were officers, soldiers, members of the ‘popular committees [pro-regime militia]’ and their relatives, according to AFP. Some 24 of the victims were civilians, including women and children.

Regime Troops accused of Looting Palmyra

In early June 2016, a leading German cultural heritage expert charged that Syrian regime troops were looting the ancient city of Palmyra, just as IS militants had done before them. Archaeologist Hermann Parzinger, head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, made the statement on the eve of a two-day Berlin conference on ways to protect heritage sites in war-ravaged Syria. Speaking to the media, Parzinger said that off-duty Syrian troops “are conducting illegal excavations” and “have looted” the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Reports of Regime Cooperation With IS

The regime’s recapture of Palmyra was allegedly part of a secret agreement between Damascus and IS, which allowed IS to move its heavy weapons from the city to Raqqa Governorate in northern Syria before withdrawing. This is according to a report by Britain’s Sky News, citing documents it obtained from IS defectors.

Stuart Ramsay, the Sky News correspondent who prepared the report, said that he asked one of the defectors if IS was coordinating its movements directly with Assad loyalists or even with Russia, which supported the regime with warplanes, in the attack Syrian forces carried out to “easily” retake the city. The defector responded to the question with one word: definitely.

IS resumes Attacks Near Palmyra

Almost three months after the city was reclaimed, IS reportedly resumed attacks against regime forces and its allies near Palmyra. In early July 2016, IS shot down a Russian military helicopter, killing both pilots. The Mi-25 aircraft was allegedly conducting a test flight when it received a request for assistance from the Syrian military, which was under attack from IS militants to the east of Palmyra.

A week later, and in response to the IS attack, six Russian Tu-22M3 long-range bombers destroyed two command centres and compounds in anti-IS airstrikes, Russia’s Defence Ministry said. “According to imagery intelligence, the airstrike destroyed two command centres of terrorist groupings, [their] manpower and combat vehicles in shelter,” the Defence Ministry added.

More recently, on 1 September 2016, IS fighters attacked regime checkpoints with mortar fire and heavy machine guns, killing and wounding dozens of pro-regime forces in north-eastern Palmyra, and seizing control of 11 security checkpoints, according to local sources and media activists. Palmyra may have been liberated, but the war on terror is far from won.

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