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Isis pulls back from Palmyra but fear of 'cultural atrocity' remains
The ruins of Palmyra have long enchanted visitors, its famous queen Zeinobia occupying the same iconic status for Syrians as Cleopatra does for Egypt.
But the once-bustling Silk Road hub known in antiquity for its mosaic of artisans and merchants of varied ethnicy and religion is now in the crosshairs of the terror group Islamic State, whose fighters have looted and destroyed historical and cultural artefacts in Iraq.
"Palmyra constitutes one of the most beautiful and impressive panoramas to have survived from classical antiquity," said historian Tom Holland. "Its ruins are as beautiful as they are well-preserved."
"More than that, though, it is a monument to the great melting pot of cultures that bordered the eastern flank of the Roman empire: the same melting pot that would ultimately serve to incubate Islam," Holland added. "Its destruction is too awful to contemplate."
Palmyra's fall does not appear imminent - the Syrian regime has repelled the initial incursion into the city, which is also of vital strategic and political significance. But government resources are stretched thin and the historic city remains in danger, with Isis renewing its assault on its eastern border and consolidating its hold on nearby towns.
An assault on ancient Palmyra would have symbolic value for Isis, targeting one of the remaining markers of unity that could be valuable in a postwar Syria. Calls to "save" the historic city, made by the chief of Unesco, raise questions about the international intervention against Isis in Syria, with western officials seeming more concerned about the loss of ancient artefacts than the daily death toll in the hundreds.
Still, local activists and experts agree the loss would be incalculable. "We know the world cares because there are so many historical artefacts even though people are dying every day from oppression," said Ahmad al-Nasser, the pseudonym of a pro-opposition activist in the Local Co-ordination Committee for Tadmur, the modern name for Palmyra. "The ruins of Tadmur are symbols of civilisation that generations in Syria were raised with, and the most important thing for Syrians is to preserve these artefacts that tell the history of every Syrian."
Syrian officials warned on Thursday that Isis was just a kilometre away from the historic city, endangering the Unesco world heritage site's magnificent ruins.
But on Friday fighters from the militant group appeared to have pulled back from the eastern outskirts of the city to positions two miles away. The Assad regime launched over a dozen air strikes against Isis positions east of the city, and Syrian state TV said regime troops had pushed the militants back.
Activists said both the regime and Isis had summoned reinforcements, but that the battle was likely to be drawn out. While government forces are stretched thin after recent losses to northern rebels in Idlib, and Isis may rely on suicide bombings and possible sleeper cells in the city, Assad's army is determined to hold on to it. The loss of the city would open the road to Damascus and Homs, which fell to the regime after an excruciating two-year siege, and would sever supply lines to the eastern province of Deir Ezzor, where the regime is struggling against the encroachment of Isis.
But what distinguishes this particular battle from the dozens that take place all over Syria every day is the setting: ruins that are the pride of Syrians of every ethnicity and sect. The story of Zeinobia who stood up to the "conquerors" of the Roman empire resonates with Syrians today.
"Obviously I'm deeply concerned, very frightened, very afraid that once Isis gets its hands on Palmyra, which they may well do so sooner or later, that this is going to have a catastrophic effect on one of Syria's most important sources of heritage," said Amr al-Azm, a pro-opposition former Syrian antiquities official. "To see that destroyed is, I think, a deep blow to this sense of identity, and it will be an irreplaceable loss."
Isis has destroyed numerous cultural artefacts and heritage sites in Nineveh in Iraq, after sweeping through the province last summer in a lightning offensive. The advance on Palmyra has triggered fears of similar "cultural atrocities".
Irina Bokova, the director general of Unesco, appealed to all parties to protect the site from destruction, but analysts say it would be difficult to drive back the militants without air strikes by the US-led coalition, which would directly aid the Assad regime. Intervention to protect the ancient ruins would also risk appearing to minimise the previous suffering of millions of Syrians that did not prompt international action.
Experts also say outrage over Isis attacks on cultural heritage encourages the militant group to continue its desecration of historical sites and plays into its narrative.
"Damaging the site is also an act of psychological warfare," said David Wengrow, professor of comparative archaelogy at University College London, whose work focuses on the Middle East. "Then there is also the element of calculated provocation, to show the world that people elsewhere care more about ancient temples and statues than they do about their fellow human beings, that we are the true barbarians and idolaters."
Azm said the combination of the impotence of the international community, the impunity with which Isis acts in destroying and illicitly trading in historic treasures, and the rhetorical outrage over its acts, convinces the terror group of the value of targeting the region's heritage.
"It's like when a thief enters your home and holds you hostage and they're looking for something valuable and you keep staring at that one spot under your bed," he said.
For many Syrians, the destruction of historical sites goes beyond tearing down bricks and stones. "This conflict is going to have to end one day," said Azm. "When it does, Syrians ... will look to common denominators that helps them identify what makes a Syrian Syrian - the incentives that make them live together.
"And they're going to look for the symbols that help hold their society together, and cultural heritage in general is one of the few areas they do agree on, that they can rally around and use as a focal point to rebuild and restructure their lives," he added. "Destroying Syria's past is also destroying Syria's future."
[Source: By Kareem Shaheen in Beirut, The Guardian, London, 15May15]
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