ISIS in Palmyra: lives versus archaeology?

ISIS forces on May 20 seized the Syrian city of Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur and famed for its ancient ruins—built by an Arab civilization 2,000 years ago in the Greco-Roman style. The Local Coordination Committees civil resistance network said the entire city came under ISIS control after pro-regime forces staged a "strategic retreat." As ISIS has advanced on Palmyra, there has been growing concern that its archaeological treasures will fall victim to the systematic ISIS campaign of cultural cleansing that has already seen partial destruction of the Iraqi sites of Hatra and Nimrud. UNESCO director general Irina Bokova said: "The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the Middle East, and its civilian population. I reiterate my appeal for an immediate cessation of hostilities at the site. I further call on the international community to do everything in its power to protect the affected civilian population and safeguard the unique cultural heritage of Palmyra."

Also critical of the "international community" (read: US-led military coalition) for its inaction was none other than the Bashar Assad regime. The regime's director of museums and antiquities, Maamoun Abdul-Kareem, warned as ISIS approached Palmyra: "They will destroy everything that exists there." After the city fell, he told the state news agency he had hoped the coalition would strike to protect the archaeological site: "We hoped the international community wouldn't fail to defend Palmyra, but we didn't [notice] any actual reaction by it." (CNNMcClatchy, May 20; Reuters, May 14)

Rafif Jouejati of the opposition Syria Freedom Charter elaborates on the irony, telling the BBC World Service tonight that Assad regime forces have themselves been plundering the ruins of Palmyra for years. Omar Hamza, an activist in Palmyra, told the BBC News that the area has already been "bombarded very heavily" by both ISIS and regime forces. Videos have been posted to YouTube purporting to show regime soldiers carting away artifacts from Palmyra in a pick-up truck. And CNN reminds us that Syria's archaeological treasures have already been damaged in the war: "Notable casualties include 11th century crusader castle Crac des Chevaliers; its walls were severely damaged by regime airstrikes in 2013."

Of course, the Assad regime has plundered archaeological sites for profit, or wrecked them as "collateral damage," whereas ISIS seeks to eradicate them as a matter of ideology. But that hardly makes the regime's protestations any the less hypocritical.

Meanwhile, rights observers are frustrated by the relative inattention to the threat to Palmyra's human inhabitants. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported May 18 that ISIS fired a barrage of rockets on residential neighborhoods in the city, killing five civilians, including two children. Fighting in and around Palmyra in recent days claimed the lives of nearly 300 by the Observatory's count: 123 soldiers and loyalist militiamen, 115 ISIS fighters, and 57 civilians. And Palmyra's peacetime population of 70,000 has been swamped by an influx of civilians fleeing the ISIS advance. (Al Arabiya, May 18)

Also lost in the mainstream coverage is that Palmyra is the site of Tadmur military prison, where the regime has long interned, tortured and sometimes killed political dissidents. The most infamous incident was in June 1980, when Rifaat al-Assad, Bashar's uncle and then the regime's security chief, ordered prisoners summarily executed after the Syrian branch of the Muslim Brotherhood attempted to assassinate his brother, then-dictator Hafez al-Assad. Commandos massacred at least 500 of the detainees.

Tadmur prison was closed in 2001 (in the brief "spring" that followed the death of Hafez Assad) only to be reopened at the start of the Syrian conflict four years ago. Human rights groups say as least 350 anti-regime protesters continue to be interned there. (Al Bawaba, May 18)

If ISIS takes over Tadmur prison (which is looking inevitable), we can predict they will follow their usual methodology: conscripting the Sunni detainees—many of whom, after years of Assad's tender ministrations, will likely be plenty motivated to fight for them. We shudder to think what will be the fate of the leftist and secular prisoners.