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The Islamic State lost Palmyra

March 27, 2016

The Syrian army, backed by Russian air support, has chased the terrorists of IS (Islamic State) out of Palmyra, inflicting the most severe defeat to the Islamic terror organization since its failed siege of the Kurdish border town Kobane in 2014.

The fighting has reportedly died down and army engineering teams are currently dismantling booby-traps, IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and mines, placed by IS throughout the city.

Syrian and Russian jets are targeting the retreating IS fighters and they have destroyed dozens of vehicles on the roads leading east from the city.

After taking the village of Al-Amiriyah on Palmyra’s northern outskirts, government forces fought their way into Palmyra’s northern and western districts. Before that the troops had occupied all surrounding hills, attacking from high ground and from several sides, thereby making Palmyra indefensible. Most IS fighters have fled now and they are trying to reach As Sukhnah, a small desert town in the direction of Deir Ezzor. As Sukhnah is the last remaining IS post which could hinder the Syrian army to relief the besieged enclave of Deir Ezzor, and IS has already started to build a new defense line at As Sukhnah to prevent further Syrian advances.

Palmyra 03 2016 19

The regular Syrian army was supported by the elite unit Suqur al-Sahara (Desert Hawks), by Russian special forces, and the Russian air force. Alone yesterday fighter jets carried out 40 raids in and around Palmyra, hitting 158 targets and killing at least 100 terrorists. Various sources estimate the losses of IS to be between 400 and 600 fighters.

The Syrian government published the names of 110 soldiers who died during the fighting in Palmyra and Al-Qaryatayn, while the London based rebel mouthpiece SOHR (Syrian Observatory for Human Rights) speaks of 180 killed troops. The youngest Syrian soldier who has died is 19-year-old Alexander Suleiman. R I P.

The Syrian army is simultaneously preparing to storm the oasis town of Al-Qaryatayn, which IS has cleansed from the Christian population and where it destroyed the 1,500 years old Monastery of St. Elian. At the moment IS positions are under artillery fire and bombing attacks, the town is surrounded by Syrian troops, who have seized control of the strategically important Muntar Al-Rumailah hills.

Though not as famous as Palmyra, Al-Qaryatayn has notable Greco-Roman-era buildings and important historical landmarks. While Palmyra is the gateway to the eastern parts of the Syrian desert, Al-Qaryatayn is the gateway to the southern parts. From here the army can block the advance of a newly constituted Western rebel group, called NSA (New Syrian Army), which tries to invade Syria from Jordan.

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Palmyra is a city in Syria’s Homs province and it includes a UNESCO world heritage site, known as “bride of the desert”. Before the war the town used to attract 150,000 tourists every year.

Palmyra was a major centre of the ancient world as it lay on the caravan route linking the Roman Empire with Persia and the eastern world. Archaeological finds date back to the Neolithic period and human settlements were documented since the early second millennium BC. Palmyra changed hands on a number of occasions between different empires, before becoming a Roman garrison in the first century AD.

After IS conquered Palmyra, the jihadists systematically destroyed historical sites, including the Lion of Al-latd, the Temple of Baalshamin, the Temple of Bel, the Arch of Triumph, and three of the best preserved tower tombs including the Tower of Elahbel.

When IS approached the town, some artifacts were removed from the Palmyra museum by the Syrian curators and transported in two trucks to Damascus. Unfortunately many treasures had to be left behind, and a number of Greco-Roman busts, jewelry, and other objects looted from the Palmyra museum were subsequently discovered on the international antiquity market. Syrian soldiers, who today inspected the museum, found it completely vandalized, with all antiquities inside destroyed.

Palmyra’s famous amphitheater was used as a place of public executions. A video released by IS showed the killing of 20 Syrian soldiers at the hands of teenage male executioners, watched by hundreds of IS supporters. On 18th August 2015, Palmyra’s world renowned antiquities chief, 82-year-old Khaled al-Asaad, was beheaded by IS after being tortured for a month to get information about the city and its treasures. He had refused to give any information to his captors.

Drone footage released by a Russian television station shows collapsed archaeological structures in the Greco-Roman old city, but the amphitheater seems to be largely intact. It will take years and a concerted international effort to restore this world heritage, a task which is is difficult but not impossible.

Maamoun Abdelkarim, Syria’s director of antiquities, promises: “We will not leave the temples destroyed … We will assess how much damage the stones suffered and we will re-use them in order to scientifically put back the temples … We have the plans and the images and we will rebuild the missing portions until the temples of Bel and Baalshamin are restored.”

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Although IS has blown up Palmyra’s most famous tombs and temples, the terror group left other key sites untouched, including the already mentioned amphitheater, a town square, and crossroads marked by four elegant gates.

We are optimistic that the spirit of Palmyra is still there,” says Maamoun Abdelkarim. “We had some requests and the Syrian army is being careful about advancing slowly through the historical area to avoid booby-traps or damage to the heritage.”

We have to send a message against terrorism that we are united in protecting our heritage … We will never accept that the children of Syria and the world visit the site of Baalshamin and Bel and the victory arch while they are lying in ruins on the ground. We will rebuild them.”

Retaking Palmyra is a major victory for President Dr. Bashar al-Assad’s government, which has made steady gains in recent months against IS and other rebel groups.

But most important it is a moral boost for the SAA (Syrian Arab Army), which has become the main pillar of the Syrian state. For five years the army held out against a constant invasion of well funded and equipped criminal gangs via Turkey, Jordan, and to a lesser extent Israel, suffering 140,000 deaths (SAA + NDF), with thousands of captured Syrian soldiers tortured and summarily executed by the Islamic criminals.

Which other army would still be able to fight after such a relentless war of attrition and a terrible bloodletting? There may have been tactical and strategic failures, poor organization, and bad judgements by the army brass, but the general conduct of the soldiers is no less heroic than the Kurdish defense of Kobane and it will secure them a place in history!

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Western commentators are not enthusiastic about this victory against the terrorist group, the BBC for instance wrote:

But residents and observers cast doubts on why Mr Assad’s forces pulled out from Palmyra in the first place, allowing Islamic State (IS) militants to get in to the city.”

In May 2015, hundreds of IS fighters drove tens of thousands of kilometres across the desert to reach Palmyra, almost uninterrupted, while government forces were dropping barrel bombs over opposition areas full of civilians.

Though the BBC has corrected the original nonsensical text (thousands of kilometers), it can be still viewed with archive.org
http://web.archive.org/web/20160327133205/http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-35906568

Palmyra is btw located 170 kilometers south of Raqqa and 200 kilometers west of Deir Ezzor, a 3 to 4 hour drive. One could as well ask why the US air force didn’t attack the IS convoys as they were driving through open desert.

US jets didn’t bother IS then and they don’t bother it now, in fact, the US-led-coalition’s efforts against IS have come nearly to a standstill. February saw the lowest US air force activity against the terrorists since the campaign begun. There are still the occasional assassinations of high profile IS leaders in order to feed a good story to Western journalists and keep the myth of a US war against IS alive, but any actions which could actually weaken the terror organization are painfully avoided.

Where Western sympathies truly lie was made clear when US State Department spokesman Mark Toner tried to explain to reporters why it may be better if IS holds onto its territory.

You know, I mean look… broadly speaking …. you know… it’s not a great choice… an either/or… but… you know...”

We know indeed. We understand that in the eyes of Western leaders there are bad terrorists and good terrorists, and as long as the IS brutes remain in Syria, to further the destruction of the Syrian state, they are the good terrorists. 

The following maps are high resolution. Click on and zoom in to see the details.

Syria map 16 03 2016

Palmyra Qaryatayn map

 Related:

Maskirovka, Geopolitical Chess, and Judo
The empire doesn’t retreat or compromise
Plea for a nonviolent solution of the Syrian war
Syria Situation Report 22 01 2016
Turkish collaboration with IS
Who will stop Erdogan? Update 2
Who will stop Erdogan? Update
Who will stop Erdogan?
Seeds of terror and desperation
Clarifications about the Syrian conflict
Cultural Racketeering in Syria
Judo in geopolitics

Update:

The Wounded Phoenix of Palmyra

Franklin Lamb

Eyewitness accounts from the scene this morning (3/30/2016) confirm that the Syrian Army has liberated all parts of the city of Palmyra (Tadmor) including all of the ancient city, from 10 months of occupation and destruction by IS. The Syrian army spokesman explained that the city, home to some of the most extensive ruins of the Roman Empire, would now become a “launch pad” for operations against IS strongholds in Raqqa and Deir al-Zor, further east across a vast desert. Syrian state media announced yesterday that Palmyra’s military airport was again receiving air traffic.

What played a large role is preventing IS from doing even more damage to Palmyra was the leadership of Syria’s Department of Antiquities and Museum (DGAM) which since 2015 has been encouraging and leading efforts by the local community, including tribal, and religious leaders. Their work included surreptitiously mobilizing many of the 50,000 residents of the city as well as some four dozen staff members of DGAM’s regional office, who worked to preserve our shared culture heritage at Palmyra. DGAM’s Director, Dr. Maamoun AbdulKarim commented, “I think Daesh (IS) understood very strongly that if they continued to destroy buildings, they would be attacked by the local community.”

Following IS killing of the late famed archeologist and Palmyra Museum Director, Khaled al-Asaad, IS destruction continued in rapid succession. Included were Baalshamin Temple, the Sella of Bel Temple (September 2025), and the Triumphal Arch (October 2015). As widely reported, the organization’s main motivation is disapproval of religious sculptures of any sort — and of religious movements that they consider heretical. It also strongly disapproves of paganism, monumental tombs of any sort — and of all figurative religious decoration. Captured IS records makes plain that its campaign of destruction was methodical and centrally planned. A special IS unit tasked with selecting targets and implementing the destruction.

The local community increasingly strongly opposed the wanton IS destruction, often risking their lives to end the jihadist iconoclasm. The local citizen’s resistance and public demonstrations prevented more damage to their and our cultural heritage and identity.

In addition, since May 2015 when IS invaded Palmyra, DGAM staff in Palmyra quickly and methodically transported approximately 400 full statues or heads of statues as well as hundreds of exhibits, many of which this observer photographed earlier that year. Hundreds of artifacts and transportable statues were packed into storage boxes and moved to secured locations, some as far away as Damascus. The sudden arrival of IS terrorists made it impossible to evacuate the larger statues as well as a few exhibited heads of statues fixed on the walls of the museum halls where damage is more extensive.

As DGAM explains to visitors, while IS terrorists target treasures and encourage looting and illicit trafficking to fund their operations, claiming that they consider that statues are idols against their ideologies and, consequently, they do not trade with them. But part of the reality is that IS could not find many of the artifacts given that DGAM with the help of the local population had already evacuated them.

While some treasured monuments have been destroyed, much of the ancient city’s ruins remain intact. Syria’s antiquities chief Dr. Maamoun Abdulkarim said authorities had been “expecting the worst” from the 10 month occupation of IS. But he told the AFP news agency that “the landscape, in general, is in good shape”. Most of the stones from the collapsed Temple of Bel appear to be still on the site. There had been damage to the fence of the city’s medieval citadel, “but it can be fixed. And some stones at the Temple of Baal are still intact.” Dr. Abdulkarim has also announced that the old ruins, located southwest of Palmyra’s residential neighborhoods, were in better condition than he expected. Many of the most important ruins, including the Agora, Roman Theater, and city walls, were only slightly damaged. “The really great news is about the Lion of Al-Lat,” the famous 15-ton lion statue destroyed by IS last July, Abdulkarim said. The limestone statue at the temple of Al-Lat, a pre-Islamic Arabian goddess, dates back to the first century BC. Abdulkarim said the broken pieces “could be put back together — we didn’t lose this great statue.”

Once DGAM has UNESCO’s approval, Dr. Addulkarim estimates that Syria we will need five years to restore the structures damaged or destroyed by ISIS. Abdulkarim told AFP. “We have the qualified staff, the knowledge and the research. With UNESCO’s approval, we can start the work in a year’s time.”

So far more many countries have offered archeological sites restoration assistance both in terms of cash and expertise. They acknowledge willingness to work under Syrian direction on DGAM’s prioritized projects.

In addition, several organizations from the UK, Germany, Italy, Japan, China, the USA and elsewhere have also been working the past couple of years to create precise three-dimensional digital models of the threatened archaeological and heritage sites in Syria.

Among the examples, four kilometers outside the marble quarries of Carrara, Italy, robots and other technology are being used to carve from massive stone a 20-foot-high scale reproduction of one of Palmyra’s most famous ancient monuments: a Roman triumphal arch that Islamic State militants razed in October of last year. Next month, the 12-ton replica will be on display at Trafalgar Square in London and then on to New York.

Dr. Alexy Karenowska, Director of Technology at the IDA and Oxford’s One Million Images Project points out that a reproduction can only ever be “second best.” But she added, “The idea is to use this as a way of drawing attention to the fact that reconstruction is underway, and as proof of what technology can do for something that touches all of us.”

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As reported in the New York Times on 3/28/2016, expelling IS iconoclasts has raised hopes among the organizations and they are pursuing an even more ambitious rebuilding agenda. According to Roger L. Michel Jr., the founder and executive director of the Institute for Digital Archaeology (IDA), which works with Harvard, Oxford and the Museum of the Future in Dubai, “This is the moment we have been waiting for” adding, that “Every time we resurrect from the rubble one of these monuments, it undercuts the message of fear and ignorance that these people are trying to spread,” he said. “If they knock it down, we will rebuild it. If they knock it down again, we will rebuild it again.” This is the same attitude expressed to this observer while traveling around Syria visiting damaged archeological and other cultural heritage sites the past couple of years.

One is reminded that most of Palmyra has been rebuilt throughout history more than once and the “Pearl of the Desert” has suffered far worse destruction in the past. Each time it was restored by the Syrian people after many thought all hope was lost. For example, in 273 AD, Palmyra, led by Queen Zenobia, rebelled against Rome and was totally destroyed as punishment. But it was eventually rebuilt.

This observer harbors no doubt that the Syrian people will restore Palmyra again.

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