As they have swept across Syria and Iraq, Islamic State group fighters have destroyed or damaged numerous ancient sites and sculptures, raising fears both locally and internationally that Palmyra, a United Nations world-heritage site, could also suffer irrevocable damage.
Islamic State group extremists swept into the desert city of Palmyra in central Syria on Wednesday, and by evening were in control of it, residents and Syrian state news media said, a victory that gives them another strategically important prize five days after the group seized the Iraqi city of Ramadi.
Palmyra has extra resonance, with its grand complex of 2,000-year-old colonnades and tombs, one of the world’s most magnificent remnants of antiquity, as well as the grimmer modern landmark of Tadmur Prison, where Syrian dissidents have languished over the decades.
But for the fighters on the ground, the city of 50,000 people is significant because it sits among gas fields and astride a network of roads across the country’s central desert. Palmyra’s vast unexcavated antiquities could also provide significant revenue through illegal trafficking.
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Control of Palmyra gives the Islamic State group command of roads leading from its strongholds in eastern Syria to Damascus and the other major cities of the populated west, as well as new links to western Iraq, the other half of its self-declared caliphate.
The advance, in which residents described soldiers and the police fleeing, wounded civilians unable to reach hospitals and museum workers hurrying to pack up antiquities, comes even as the United States is scrambling to come up with a response to the loss of Ramadi, the capital of Iraq’s Anbar province.
The two successes, at opposite ends of a battlefield sprawling across two countries, showed the Islamic State group’s ability to shake off setbacks and advance on multiple fronts, less than two months after it was driven from the Iraqi city of Tikrit — erasing any notion that the group had suffered a game-changing blow.
In Iraq, it has left the U.S. military in the uncomfortable position of supporting an attempt to reclaim Ramadi, in Iraq’s Sunni heartland, with the help of Iranian-backed Shiite militias whose participation in the fight there Washington had previously opposed.
In Syria, a new awkwardness arises. Any airstrikes against Islamic State forces in and around Palmyra would probably directly benefit the forces of President Bashar Assad. Until now, U.S.-led airstrikes in Syria had largely focused on areas far outside government control, to avoid the perception of aiding a president whose ouster President Obama has called for.
There also have been calls from international cultural organizations to protect the ruins — although how that could be done is unclear — to prevent a repeat of Islamic State attacks on other renowned ancient sites in recent months.
As they have swept across Syria and Iraq, Islamic State fighters have destroyed or damaged numerous ancient sites and sculptures, condemning them as idolatry in slickly produced recruitment films, even as they pillage and sell off more portable items to finance their activities. That has raised fears both locally and internationally that Palmyra, a United Nations world-heritage site, could also suffer irrevocable damage.
The fall of Palmyra has also brought to a head, in a new way, the dilemma of Syrians who oppose both the Islamic State and Assad. The city was partly held for a time by local rebel fighters, before the Islamic State group took shape as a major player in the conflict. But they no longer have a presence there, putting some of Assad’s opponents in the odd position of hoping that his forces can protect the city and the ruins.
“It’s the elephant in the room,” said Amr al-Azm, a former Syrian antiquities official who now teaches at Shawnee State University in Ohio. He has joined calls in recent days for international protection for the ruins. That, he said, would effectively mean a military intervention aiding the government he fervently opposes.
“I’m really frustrated that I’ve been reduced to this situation,” he said, complaining that Assad’s success in “pushing this binary on us Syrians and the international community: There is no alternative, it’s either us or a far worse threat.”
But no intervention appears likely. People in Palmyra, a relatively remote city, its population swollen with tens of thousands of displaced Syrians, were left on their own, literally squeezed between government forces and the Islamic State group.
Residents said that by nightfall, the Islamic State group had seized most of the city. Soldiers and police could be seen fleeing, they said, prompting one cafe owner to exclaim over the phone, “Treason! It’s treason.”
Workers could be seen earlier Wednesday packing up four truckloads of small boxes from the museum on the edge of the ruins, apparently carting away more antiquities in addition to items already removed for safekeeping, said Khaled al-Homsi, a Palmyra resident and anti-government activist who documents damage to the site by combatants.
The Islamic State group was coming closer, he said, as a squad of 12 soldiers who had manned a nearby checkpoint appeared to withdraw. As he spoke over Internet chat, a boom could be heard; he said government airstrikes were coming dangerously close to the archaeological site’s medieval citadel.
“It’s bad today,” Khalil al-Hariri, the museum’s director, said in a brief phone conversation, while Syria’s top antiquities director told Reuters that hundreds of objects were being removed to safety. Another museum employee, who had earlier vowed not to leave, said by phone, “Pray for us.”
The ancient site is close to the hearts of Syrians on both sides of the original conflict between Assad and his opponents, which began with political protests in 2011 and metastasized into a multi-front war.
Local rebels — early in the conflict, before the Islamic State group appeared on the scene — once called themselves Grandchildren of Zenobia, referring to an ancient queen of Palmyra. In the recent fighting, some government troops had vowed in social-media posts that “Zenobia will never fall.”
In battles overnight, the extremists captured several important locations in the northern part of Palmyra, including two security facilities and the public central bakery, according to anti-government activists, who said they had not yet entered the ruins.
“I’m here and still breathing,” Homsi, who uses a nom de guerre for his safety, said in a text message earlier Wednesday.
At the same time, he lamented that more attention had been focused on the threat to the ruins than to the city’s people. Islamic State fighters massacred captive soldiers and civilians in outlying villages last week, according to a government soldier whose comrades were killed. And Homsi said several civilians had been killed in crossfire in Palmyra, unable to get treatment at the hospital, which was being used solely for military casualties.
Several Palmyra residents said Wednesday that they were staying indoors and hoping to stay out of fighting or politics. Asked what he would do if forced to choose between the government and the Islamic State, Homsi was silent for several seconds. Finally, he said, “I will try to remain neutral.” By Wednesday night, he had gone into hiding.