21 May 2015

Palmyra: more than just ancient ruins under Isis control

Concerns are raised over the fate of ancient monuments in the Syrian city of Palmyra – but the victory by the Islamic State group is first and foremost a strategic one.

Above: maps shared by pro-Islamic State social media accounts show the group’s Palmyra victory.

On Wednesday evening the jihadist group announced it had taken control of the whole of Palmyra, also known as Tadmur, including the 2,000-year-old ruins of the ancient city of Palmyra.

Human, civilised society has lost the battle against barbarism. Maamoun Abdulkarim

IS has a record of destroying cultural monuments – such as the ancient city of Nimrud in Iraq – and there are concerns that the site of Palmyra, identified by Unesco as one of the “most important cultural centres of the ancient world” will suffer the same fate.

Syria’s antiquities chief Maamoun Abdulkarim described the capture of the ancient city as “the fall of a civilisation.”

“Human, civilised society has lost the battle against barbarism,” he said.

The world is holding its breath over what now happens to the ruins, and reports from Islamic State social media accounts suggest fighters have been banned from filming inside the ancient city.

However, the IS victory is not just a symbolic one.

As well as the ancient city, Tadmur houses one of the world’s most notorious prisons and a modern airbase – and is strategically located between the rebel-controlled east and the remaining cities under Assad’s control, such as Damascus and Homs, in the west.

George Readings, analyst at security risk specialists Stirling Assynt, told Channel 4 News: “By seizing Palmyra IS has an opportunity to destroy some of the antiquities and to sell others on the black market, but more significantly is the fact that they have taken a step from their strongholds in eastern Syria towards the capital Damascus.”

The Syrian Observatory of Human Rights estimates that Islamic State fighters now control 37,000 square miles of Syria, around half the country – though much of this is unpopulated desert.

Control of the city severs a link for Assad’s forces between their western heartland and, now isolated, troops fighting at Deir ez-Zour in the east.

IS fighters took control of Palmyra by capturing military facilities north of the city, before surrounding it and advancing through the north and south, as explained above by Channel 4 News Foreign Affairs Correspondent Jonathan Miller.

The Institute for the Study of War said it is now watching the town of al-Shoula near Deir ez-Zour, where they expect IS to attack Assad’s Brigade 137.

The IS victory is also a sign that Assad’s increasingly stretched forces are struggling to maintain control. Palmyra is the latest high-profile regime defeat, following the fall of Idlib earlier in the year.

What is in Palmyra?

Tadmur airbase and the surrounding area is home to major weapons storage facilities including a missile base.

It is not known what weapons are left at Tadmur, but it is possible that ballistic missiles are among the Islamic State’s spoils.

Photos posted online of a large pile of ammunition suggest weapons are still located around the city.

Ammo haul near Palmyra

The airbase itself was equipped with anti-aircraft guns and was a base for Assad’s air force’s MiG-25 jets, though it is not known to what extent such hardware remains at the base.

Notorious prison

Also in the town is the notorious Tadmur prison where the regime detained and tortured political opponents.

An Amnesty International report from 2001 detailed how Tadmur “appears to have been designed to inflict the maximum suffering, humiliation and fear on prisoners”. It reports how prisoners were continually beaten, and whipped and often executed.

IS fighters are reported to have freed between 700 and 1,000 prisoners from the prison.

Around Palmyra the fighters have also seized a number of major gas fields which supply power to western Syria.

Brutal toll

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has documented the deaths of 462 people since the beginning of the Islamic State advance on Palmyra and the nearby town of al-Suknah.

Among those reportedly killed are women and children including members of the families of government officials.

Pictures posted to social media show apparently civilian corpses lying in the streets of Palmyra.