If Palmyra is destroyed

Whatever happens to ruins and history, ordinary people are paying the heaviest price in Syria’s brutal conflict.

The ancient Palmyra theater in the historical city of Palmyra [REUTERS]
The ancient Palmyra theater in the historical city of Palmyra [REUTERS]

The ISIL juggernaut, seemingly stalled after reverses in Kobane and Tikrit, is on the move. Palmyra followed Ramadi and is now under the black flag. It’s the first time that ISIL have taken control of a city directly from the Syrian military and its allies.

According to the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights, they now control half of the country and thousands of more civilians are fleeing alongside Bashar al-Assad’s retreating army.

Palmyra known as both the “bride” and the “pearl” of the desert is a remarkable 2,000-year-old historic oasis and UNESCO world heritage site. The Temple of Bel and its surrounding line of sun kissed columns and a hilltop castle were a tourist’s dream and far less busy than Jordan’s more famous Petra. It is a global icon that is now under the sovereignty of a group who are trying to bring about their own “Year Zero” to the region.

ISIL captures strategic Syrian city of Palmyra

Destroying history is part of reimagining it under their own auspices and every site and monument that is destroyed or sold, is another victory.

Strategic and symbolic

The loss of Palmyra is both strategic and symbolic. The Institute for the Study of War described the loss of Palmyra as a “major defeat for the Assad regime that is likely to jeopardise the regime’s ability to maintain a foothold in Deir ez-Zour”. The road to Homs lies ahead and a number of military facilities as well as the surrounding gas fields of al-Hail and Arak are now in ISIL’s hands.

ISIL will feast on the sales of antiquities that couldn’t be removed in time and we await the seemingly inevitable destruction of the parts of the site that can’t be plundered and sold. From the museums of Mosul to the Assyrian city of Nimrud, the ISIL sledgehammers have turned hundreds of years of human history into dust in a matter of hours.

The urgency of action has been replaced by the dawning realisation of what ISIL's takeover actually means.


Palmyra, one of the most remarkable historical sites in the Middle East, may be about to be made history itself and the world watches on with impotent horror.

Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s antiquities chief, told the Reuters before the fall of the city that “the fear is for the museum and the large monuments that cannot be moved. This is the entire world’s battle”.

Indeed the world has responded to the impending loss in ways that we’ve not seen before. Voices previously silent on Syria suddenly spoke out for something to be done, even the Mayor of London called for a “no fly zone” over Palmyra to defend the ruins without any real sense of how that would be achieved.

The urgency of action has been replaced by the dawning realisation of what ISIL’s takeover actually means. According to NPR, people in Palmyra woke up to find decapitated bodies in the streets with ISIL using mosque speakers to demand that people “turn in soldiers or face [the] same fate”.

It’s a reminder that whatever happens to ruins and history, it is ordinary people who are paying the heaviest price in this brutal conflict.

ISIL fighter in a battle against Syrian forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra [AP]
ISIL fighter in a battle against Syrian forces on a road between Homs and Palmyra [AP]

Decline of Assad regime

The loss of Palmyra has sparked further comment on the continued decline of the Assad regime but also the state of play for the US-led campaign against ISIL. It has been clear from the start that the Syria policy lacked the coherent of the Iraq one.

Whereas the response to the loss of Ramadi in Iraq were plans of reinforcing Prime Minister Haidar al-Abbadi’s forces the US-led strategy against ISIL in Syria is disconnected from Assad’s state.

With the Iraq strategy wobbling following the loss of Ramadi, events in Palmyra may force Washington to debate more existential questions as to what to do if ISIL keep moving towards Damascus.

What was once the Silk Road has become instead a channel for terror and ISIL’s advance. In response, will Assad redeploy more of his elite forces, who are currently struggling in the north, to meet the challenge of his central flank being exposed by the ISIL advance? Or will Palmyra experience what other areas lost to opposition forces have the arrival of barrel bombs and seemingly indiscriminate use of airpower?

Many may have written off Syria’s present but the destruction of its past will surely impair its future.

James Denselow is a writer on Middle East politics and security issues and a research associate at the Foreign Policy Centre.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.