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ISIS Driven From Palmyra: Assad Makes the Most of Good Press

March 29, 2016, updated March 31, 2016.  Syrian government troops, backed by heavy fire by the Russian Air Forces, have driven ISIS from the ancient town and World Heritage site of Palmyra. Western governments, which do not support the regime of Bashar al-Assad, initially responded with only cautious enthusiasm, but eventually came round to praise al-Assad’s government for removing the ancient city from the control of ISIS.

March 31, 2016 Update.  The first substantial reports on destruction at Palmyra provide a much clearer picture of the damage to artifacts in the museum in particular. The March 31 report by Gates of Nineveh, “Assessing the Damage at Palmyra” is by far the most comprehensive resource yet available. The article also examines the complex economic as well as cultural heritage-related relationship between the Syrian government and ISIS.

A new interview with archeologist Annie Sartre-Fauriat in Deutsche Welle, “Why Palmyra is a pawn in Assad’s game with the West,” discusses the Assad regime’s failures to preserve heritage – and the important role cultural heritage plays in international political relationships for the regime.

March 29, 2016 continued: That the al-Assad government is receiving international praise for retaking Palmyra – though not for its other successes – is an example of how governments benefit by using heritage as a political tool, even if they are themselves guilty of cultural destruction. Bashar Al-Assad, who by any ordinary standard would be considered a monster for the murder of thousands of civilians and crushing of democratic movements in Syria, still gets good press when he promises to protect antiquities.

The Russian government is a staunch supporter of President Bashar Al-Assad. After Palmyra was recovered, Russian President Putin and Assad held a celebratory telephone conversation – with Putin stressing the importance of preserving Syrian heritage. Russian sources made a point of noting that its air forces made 40 bombing sorties to Palmyra in just 24 hours, but that the planes were directed away from ancient monuments and sites, without giving further details.

A spokesman for the Desert Falcons Syrian army unit announced that the fight to retake Palmyra lasted three days, first taking the heights and the ancient Palmyra fortress and then the town. The delay was in part because roads were heavily mined and some locations booby-trapped.

Maamoun Abdul-Karim, Syria’s head of antiquities and museums, said that the Syrian government intended to rebuild the monuments at Palmyra. He announced that teams from the cultural sector would be able to enter and assess the damage after de-mining experts removed an estimated 150 bombs planted by ISIS. Initial reports and photographs show severe damage and destruction of figural statues by ISIS at the Palmyra museum. ISIS has also previously released videos of important Palmyran monuments being blown apart. Overall, however, the damage to the World Monument site appears somewhat less than was feared. At least in initial reports, the destruction of objects and sites seems to have taken precedence over looting.

Russian and Syrian press reports have hailed the recapture of Palmyra as an expression of the al-Assad government’s commitment to preserve cultural heritage. It should be noted, however, that a Dartmouth-led study published in Near Eastern Archaeology ,analyzing satellite imagery of nearly 1,300 archaeological sites in Syria, reveals that the Kurdish YPG, opposition forces and the Syrian regime have also been involved in looting, often in the immediate proximity of Syrian government and YPG troops. For example, one of the best-known and most chronically looted sites in Syria is Apamea, a large Roman city in Western Syria, where looting with bulldozers reportedly took place on a block-by-block basis with al-Assad’s Syrian government troops some 200 yards away.


(Chart compiled by Jesse Casana, as published in his paper in Near Eastern Archaeology, September 2015).

Syria’s recent political past has more than once featured the destruction of ancient sites (along with the civilians living in then). In 1982, during the despotic rule of Hafez al-Assad, father of the current President, Bashar al-Assad’s brother Rifaat led the Syrian Army as it destroyed the ancient town of Hama, killing from 20,000 to 40,000 people in a single month, mostly civilians, using bombs, tanks, gasoline, and allegedly even cyanide gas. Hama was destroyed because it was a hotbed of anti-government agitation by the Muslim Brotherhood. The then opposition to the Assad regime raised little resistance after Hama was destroyed – the brutality of the attack on civilians crushed all hope of overthrowing the government. It took two generations for Syrians to seriously challenge the al-Assad government again.

It is well-accepted that economic and political stability are necessary to a workable program of cultural heritage protection. Given the regions chronic lack of both elements, it appears crucial to include protections for art and historical artifacts outside of current national borders in international cultural policy. As a result of the system of partage in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, important representative examples of Syrian art may be found in museums around the world. A number of global museums have stated that they are ready to act as temporary safe harbor for antiquities. Any US or European government policy on cultural heritage should recognize the value of having art in locations other than within source countries, and policy-makers would be wise to take the region’s chronic instability into account in developing heritage planning in the Middle East.

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