Palmyra: not a ‘liberation’

The Assad regime has announced the taking of Palmyra and its adjacent archaeological site from ISIS, though Russian air-strikes appear to have been the decisive factor. Russian state media (RT, Sputnik) shamelessly crow of the city's "liberation." The Western media have hardly been less ebullient. Daily Mail displays footage released by the regime, showing no sign of damage to the ancient ruins, but bloodstains on the wall of the amphitheater, which was used for public executions. (In fact, temples were destroyed at the site.) But Muzna al-Naib of Syria Solidarity UK spoke on British TV in much darker terms about the city's transfer. She called Assad and ISIS "two faces of the same coin," and said she spoke to activists in the city who told her "nothing has changed." She pointed out that even before ISIS took the city last May, artifacts were looted by Assad's Shabiha militia. She recalls that Palmyra was the site of a regime prison where many have been tortured to death and hundreds massacred over the years. She says that 50% of city's neighborhoods have been destroyed by the regime's cluster bombs in recent days. She calls the city's change of hands part of a "propaganda game" by both Assad and ISIS. The city "was handed to ISIS," and the threat to its ancient artifacts exploited to get international attention; now its recovery "is being used for the same thing." She protests that people in the West seem "more concerned about the artifacts than the people on the ground." (Via Facebook)

Indeed there was a "strategic retreat" of regime forces from Palmyra before it was taken by ISIS. The city's notorious Tadmur prison was blown up by ISIS—after the regime itself had targeted it with air-strikes in an apparent attempt to kill the detainees there before they could be conscripted into ISIS. Another motive may have been to hide evidence of atrocities, and kill off the witnesses and survivors. A long string of regime atrocities took place at Tadmur.

US Secretary of State John Kerry in a speech at the State Department this month for the first time publicly stated that ISIS "is responsible for genocide" against groups in areas under its control. It is time to recognize that the Assad regime has also escalated to genocide in its war against the Syrian people. It is now accused by the UN of a systematic "extermination" of the civil population in areas under his control. We hope the world media will pay as close attention to reprisals and "cleansing" campaigns against Sunni Muslims in Palmyra in the coming days—not just triumphalism about a "saved" archaeological site.