Islamic State fighters are poised to seize one of the largest arms depots in Syria after taking control of the city of Palmyra, home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site that experts fear the extremists may loot and destroy as they have done with major archaeological sites in neighboring Iraq.
Most of the international media focus in the run-up to the jihadi capture of Palmyra has been on the likely fate of ancient Palmyra, one of the Middle East’s most complete Roman archaeological sites dating back to the first and second centuries and nicknamed the “Bride of the Desert.”
Ahead of the fall of the city – the modern part is known as Tadmur – hundreds of statues were moved to safe locations, but there remain irreplaceable treasures that could be destroyed or sold on the black market, warn Syrian and UN officials.
“I am terrified,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums. “This is a PR battle for Daesh [ISIL] and they will insist on scoring a victory against civilization by destroying” the ancient ruins.
“The [Islamic State] terrorist attack on Palmyra is to take revenge on Syrian society and civilization,” Abdulkarim told state news agency SANA. To Reuters, he said, “Human, civilized society has lost the battle against barbarism. I have lost all hope.”
Abdulkarim also slammed the international community for failing to defend the site.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Wednesday U.S. officials are concerned and hope the Palmyra sites are not damaged. But she said she is unsure what more can be done at this point.
Palmyra is one of the world’s most magnificent and well-preserved archaeological sites, said Middle East historian David Lesch of Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas.
“This is one of the few sites in the entire world, of the Roman era, where you can see the entire city planning,” Lesch said in an interview with VOA. “It’s a huge loss to history, to archaeology.”
There are so far no reports of any damage to the ruins.
Strategic blow for Syria
But while fears mount about the ancient ruins and artifacts, military analysts said the assault represents a serious strategic blow for the Syrian government. It marks the first time the Islamic State group, also known by the acronym ISIL, has seized from Syrian government forces a major city.
Before, Islamic State’s major military gains in Syria came at the expense of other insurgent groups, with the Islamist extremists grabbing towns other rebels had captured from the Syrian government.
Among the immediate prizes is one of Syria’s biggest weapons depots as well as army bases, an airport, the significant gas fields of al-Hail and Arak and a notorious prison that has long been viewed as a symbol of state repression.
Islamic State fighters broke into the prison Wednesday night, according to reports from activists. Potentially, the militants could profit from selling gas-generated power back to the government of President Bashar al-Assad.
“The Islamic State organization has now established almost complete control over the area from Palmyra to the Syrian-Iraqi border and onwards to the Syrian-Jordanian frontier,” said Rami Abdelrahman, the head of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a London-based monitoring group that relies on activists inside Syria for its information.
Clashes in the area since Wednesday killed at least 100 pro-government fighters, Abdelrahman said.
The Observatory said Thursday that with the latest westward advance, Islamic State militants now control more than half of Syrian territory.
The terror group advanced into the city after seizing its northern districts Wednesday morning using suicide bombers and artillery. By evening, the defensive lines of Syrian government forces had collapsed and troops were withdrawn to new positions in regime strongholds in the west of the city, but few civilians were evacuated and hundreds of government soldiers were also left behind, local activists said.
With Palmyra in their grasp the Islamic State group has now scored two major strategic victories this month – five days ago, the militants overran Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s largest province, Anbar.
With Palmyra now in militant hands the city of Homs and the Syrian capital of Damascus are now exposed to an attack by the extremists, military analysts said. But more immediately, it will allow the group to consolidate its hold on the eastern province of Deir ez Zour where embattled regime forces rely on land resupply via a major highway running from Damascus through Palmyra.
Islamic State fighters can now sever that road, forcing the government to air-lift supplies to garrisons it controls in Deir ez Zour.
“In capturing Palmyra ISIL has shut off regime forces in Deir ez Zour and opened up direct routes to Homs, Qalamoun and Damascus,” said Charles Lister, an analyst with the Brookings Doha Center, a think tank.
Joshua Landis, a professor in Mideast studies at the University of Oklahoma, said he suspects the Islamic State group will look to strengthen their position in the east before trying to pick up more gains on their western flank or threatening Homs. “Deir is presumed to be next big push for ISIL,” he said.
The speed with which Assad’s forces collapsed defending a strategically important city with good supply lines from Damascus raises questions about the regime’s military capability after four years of civil war.
Palmyra is the second big loss in recent weeks the government has sustained. In April, a new Islamist alliance of rebel brigades backed by al-Qaida affiliate Jabhat al Nusra captured Idlib in northern Syria, only the second provincial capital the regime has lost in the conflict so far.
Rebel commanders said in both the battles for Palmyra and Idlib government forces were stretched, and noticeably absent were Iranian coordinated foreign Shi’ite militiamen and Lebanese Hezbollah fighters, whom the Syrian government has relied on for past gains as well as to organize local fighters from Assad’s minority Alawi sect, an offshoot of Shi’ite Islam.
Many Shi’ite militiamen from Iraq who had been fighting alongside the Syrian army started to return last year to neighboring Iraq to join the fight against Islamic State and Sunni allies who seized a swath of western and northern Iraq.
Hezbollah fighters are focused on a fight with Syrian rebels in the Qalamoun, a mountainous region running alongside part of Syria’s border with Lebanon.
In the battle to defend Palmyra government forces were supported by fighters from the mainly eastern al-Shaitat tribe.
Last year, Syrian commanders opened a training camp in Palmyra for al-Shaitat fighters following a massacre by Islamist militants of 700 members of their tribe, including women and children. Photographs started to appear on jihadi social media sites soon after the fall of Palmyra showing al-Shaitat tribesmen being executed for having fought against the Islamic State group.