Islamic State retakes historic city of Palmyra

Isis-affiliated news channel claims victory for jihadi fighters after intense fighting prompts Syrian military to withdraw

Islamic State fighters appear to have reconquered the historic city of Palmyra after days of intense fighting on its outskirts prompted a withdrawal by the Syrian military.

“The catastrophe has happened, I am in absolute shock,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, in a phone interview. “I am losing hope, it looks like we have lost the city.”

An Isis-affiliated news channel claimed victory in the battle on Sunday, saying its soldiers had reclaimed control of the entirety of Palmyra, once a Silk Road oasis that boasted some of the best-preserved ruins of antiquity.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a war monitoring group, confirmed the takeover.

It was the second time Isis has seized Palmyra. In May last year, jihadi militants stormed the city after a week-long siege that ended with the mass retreat of the Syrian military. Militants rampaged through the city’s museums and ruins, blowing up the 2,000-year-old towering Temple of Bel and the Arch of Victory, along with other priceless artefacts, and killed Khaled al-Asaad, Palmyra’s long-serving leading archaeologist.

The group also carried out mass executions in the historic amphitheatre.

The Syrian army, backed by Russian fighter jets, reclaimed the city in March this year in a well-publicised campaign. Moscow organised a musical concert at the amphitheatre shortly afterwards.

The loss of the city will come as a shock, particularly with Isis in retreat throughout Syria and Iraq with the killing of its top lieutenants and facing increasing pressure in its two largest cities, Mosul and Raqqa.

Abdulkarim said the vast majority of the artefacts that were in Palmyra had already been moved to Damascus for safekeeping, a prescient move that may help preserve something of the city’s heritage, one of the few aspects that unite many Syrians after nearly six years of civil war.

But the remaining buildings in the old city, a Unesco world heritage site, including the amphitheatre and the ancient citadel, remain at risk. There were few people left in the city; under 1,000 by government estimates.

“We can only pray to God to protect Palmyra and we appeal to the international community to protect Palmyra, because it is a bridge truly between east and west,” said Abdulkarim. “Otherwise we will weep for more destruction of Syria’s heritage.”

The loss of Palmyra a second time raises questions about the ability of the Syrian military, worn down after years of fighting, to hold territory even with the backing of its Russian allies. The battles on the outskirts of Palmyra have been ongoing for four days and Islamic State’s takeover was preceded by a night of intense bombardment by Russian warplanes, which carried out more than 60 airstrikes.

It will also come as a shock to observers as Isis is in retreat on multiple fronts. Drone strikes have claimed the lives of most of the group’s leading officials, including its spokesman, Abu Mohammad al-Adnani. Iraqi troops are inching their way through the eastern half of Mosul, the most populous city under the self-proclaimed caliphate’s control, and Kurdish paramilitaries as well as Turkish-backed rebels have been steadily gaining ground against the militants in northern Syria.

The latest conquest also shows Isis still has the ability to rally sufficient troops to its cause to conquer territory.

“It’s a repeat of the same scenario,” said Abdulkarim. “Today we will watch that same film again, that horror movie, if they stay in the city. It will be an insult to the entire international community and to civilisation as a whole. I hope the international community unites on this again. It must not be politicised. Palmyra is an international treasure.”


Kareem Shaheen

The GuardianTramp

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