After it briefly looked, earlier in the week, like their advance might peter out, ISIS appears to have taken control of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra as well as its modern companion city of Tadmur yesterday. As bad as ISIS’s capture of Ramadi was in Iraq, I’m going to argue that this is worse, though for a whole host of reasons. I’m not minimizing what happened in Ramadi, don’t get me wrong. Ramadi was important because taking it allows ISIS some time and space to consolidate their position in Anbar, though it appears likely that a major counter-attack to retake the city will be made soon by Iraqi military and militia forces (a counter-attack that will perversely exacerbate the sectarian tensions in Iraq that have been so important to ISIS’s long-term success). Ramadi is also strategically situated near Baghdad (though ISIS has been closer to Baghdad, in Fallujah, for a while now), and the battle saw another sizable Iraqi army unit routed by a comparatively few jihadi fighters (a psychological blow), who were then able to seize the retreating army’s weapons and equipment. Also, equally important, there’s the human cost that comes whenever ISIS moves into a new place and forces a new population under its repressive and often violent governance (a human cost that will, again, be exacerbated if the city is retaken by vindictive Shiʿa militias, as Tikrit was).
Now take Palmyra/Tadmur. There have been settlements at Palmyra since the Neolithic Era, and ~4500 or so years of continuous human occupation tends to suggest that a place must have some intrinsic strategic importance. Palmyra sits on the long road from Deir Ezzor, where regime forces have been trying to hold out against heavy odds, to key government-held cities like Homs and even Damascus, so its capture puts ISIS in position to advance toward those places and cuts those regime soldiers in Deir Ezzor off from resupply. The area is also home to major government weapons caches that may now be in ISIS’s hands. It also sits close to a number of oil and gas fields in central Syria that likely now belong to ISIS. A quick counter-attack to retake the area looks impossible, given that Bashar al-Assad’s army is reeling from losses all over the country, and only seems to be holding up in Qalamoun, where it’s totally backstopped by Hezbollah. The US and its anti-ISIS coalition is unlikely to strike ISIS’s front line here, since doing so would have the appearance of directly aiding Assad, and America really doesn’t want to appear to do that. And the human cost in Tadmur may be astronomical; the city is normally home to about 70,000 people but has taken in an unknown number of Syrians displaced by conflict elsewhere in the country, and those people are now all at ISIS’s mercy.
(Also, in related news, on Friday ISIS took control of the only remaining Iraq/Syria border crossing that wasn’t already in their hands, so unfortunately for the rest of us they’re on a bit of a roll at the moment.)
Palmyra is also a place of immense historical heritage. I put this after the other stuff above because despite how much I love historical sites I recognize that their value, though tremendous, has to be placed below the value of the lives of the people living nearby and the value of success in the fight to eradicate ISIS. Still, Palmyra is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and for good reason; it’s one of the most impressive ancient Mesopotamian/Roman sites in the world. The combination of the damage wrought by the fighting in Syria and the purposeful destruction of historical sites and artifacts by ISIS may be the worst thing to happen to Middle East archeology since the field really took off after World War I. ISIS has (ostensibly out of some ridiculous sense of iconoclasm) already destroyed several important sites like Nimrud, Nineveh, Khorsabad, and Hatra (though like the good fake ideologues they are, ISIS’s leaders have made sure to sell off whatever artifacts they can before ordering these places destroyed), but Palmyra will arguably be the biggest blow yet. Syrian antiquities officials are saying that many of the artifacts that were in Palmyra’s museum have been relocated, but you can’t relocate monumental statuary and architecture, and while there haven’t yet been any reports of destruction on the site, it’s only a matter of time.
Again, the importance of a place like Palmyra pales in comparison to the importance of the lives now at stake in Tadmur, or the lives that have already been lost to ISIS’s aggression and brutality, but it’s not trivial. ISIS is destroying human heritage as it demolishes these places, stealing our own history from each of us and depriving the people who live there of the value, both aesthetic and economic, that comes with such sites.