(The National Museum, Damascus) — It’s a god-awful situation in Palmyra. How much of our priceless cultural heritage will be destroyed during the expanding re-occupation by Islamic State (IS)?
This observer has received more than two dozen emails in the past 72 hours asking for details of what is happening in Palmyra. Many scholars and citizens interested in Palmyra and our cultural heritage here is Syria, who I have had the honor to communicate with these past three years while doing research for the volume, Syria’s Endangered Heritage: An International Responsibly to Preserve and Protect are, like most of us, abjectly horrified by Palmyra’s recapture by IS last weekend.
I spoke this morning with my friend W.N. who works with Syria’s Directorate of Antiquities and Museums (DGAM) in Homs and who accompanied me during my last visit to Palmyra when we were given detailed briefings from Syrian Military Intelligence. W was last working in the Palmyra National Museum on Thursday 12/8/2016 two days before the first units of what soon became approximately 4000-5000 IS fighters started invading. He reports that none of his colleagues had any idea that ISIS was in the area and apparently neither did the Syrian and Russian army who were caught by surprise, abandoned their base and heavy weapons stores and moved to the West toward Homs. Like all of us, officials and citizens here hope that ISIS will be expelled before they can do serious damage.
The fears of this observer and many archeologists globally, are many and distressing. One is that we will once again see televised executions in the ancient city to strengthen IS positions and create more publicity. Russian, Syrian and Iranian soldiers, taken prisoners, may become the first victims. On 12/15.2016 the government of Iran reported that two of its IRGC officers were killed a couple of days earlier fighting IS near the key Syrian military base, T4. The IRGC armed and funded Afghan Fatemiyoun Division was rushed back to Palmyra once IS re-entered the area on Saturday, 12/10/2016.
The retaking of Palmyra by IS has strategic implications. Palmyra was a much-touted political asset for Moscow. Russia is worried that the international community will see the Kremlin as a loser in Palmyra rather than as a “great power” that Vladimir Putin has been trying to achieve via Crimea, Ukraine as well as Syria and elsewhere. Previously, many ordinary Syrians welcomed Russian troops with admiration and enthusiasm, hoping that Russia’s participation in the Syrian conflict would end the war. Yet today many of them are disappointed. Some are inclined to believe that Russia is just another stakeholder in the conflict with its own interests – just like the Americans, Turks, Kurds, Hezbollah, ISIS and other military forces.
But a more major immediate concern of officials here relates to information this observer was given last May in Palmyra concerning details of what Daesh had planned to do using the nearly 3,500 explosives they had planted among the ruins. The plan was to completely obliterate Palmyra’s ancient sites. (link) but Russian and Syrian forces, with a little bit of luck and technology, plus Russian explosive sniffing dogs, were able to block them at the last minute as Daesh forces fled into the surrounding desert and mountains.
It is widely feared that IS will now decide to carry out its earlier plan which they dubbed “Erase” and substantially pulverize Palmyra’s antiquities. Unless they can be stopped.
As much of the world will recall, the last time IS controlled Palmyra it blew up several ruins, including historic treasures such as the temples of Bel and Baalshamin and the Arch of Victory among others.
The group also staged several mass public executions in the ancient Roman amphitheater.
Two days ago, Tuesday, 12/13/2013 mass executions were reported in Palmyra of more the 200 residents including a school principal and his family. One of the people in Palmyra who was providing information about recent developments was among those reported executed. Most were shot but a least two were beheaded with IS fighters showing residents photos of what happens to “regime agents.” It is predictable that supporters of the Islamic State will again broadcast televised executions in the ancient city in order strengthen their positions and create more publicity. Russian and Syrian soldiers, taken prisoners, will become the first victims.
“The catastrophe has happened, I am in absolute shock!, ” My much valued friend Dr.Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s Director of Antiquities, told the UK Guardian on Sunday 12/11/2016 in a phone interview. “I am losing hope; it looks like we have lost the city.”
During my meeting with Dr. Maamoun this afternoon in his DGAM office at the National Museum in Damascus, where he offered the most recent, yet sketchy, information from Palmyra, the International Patriot revered for his indefatigable work protecting our global cultural heritage, lamented that he will soon be 50 years of age but in reality he feels more than 80, given unfolding events in his cherished Palmyra.
It was reported here today that IS has again taken over the National Museum of Palmyra, re-established its Sharia Court in the basement, and is expected to construct another “Justice Cage” outside the Museum similar to the one shown below when this observer spent three days last May with the Syrian army who briefed him extensively on how Palmyra was liberated on March 28, 2016 by 64 Russian bombing sorties over 45 days along with 2000 Russian, Syrian army and Shia militia fighters.
The “Islamic State” is expected to once again set up, just 30 yards to the left as one exits the main entrance to Palmyra’s museum, a new execution and slave women auction chamber to decapitate nonbelievers and other miscreants as well as sell women for as little as $ 100—the former price as of February 2015 according to IS documents found in its abandoned Sharia Court. The price for virgins less than 16 years of age was at the time set at $ 150.
Last May the army officers, mentioned above, offered assurances to this observer that “Daesh will never come to Tadmor (Palmyra) again!” I believed them given all the details they presented about defenses being set up by Russian and Syrian forces.
So what happened to these defenses and what went so very wrong? This observer has heard speculation that the Syrian military simply didn’t have the manpower to defend Palmyra while it was closing in on eastern Aleppo so the loss of Palmyra for the second time is really nobody’s fault. A spurious argument in my view.
The ISIS re-occupation of Palmyra
Pulling together information from a variety of sources including Palmyra Museum employees who normally work five days a week in Palmyra as well as two ‘citizen journalists’ still living in Palmyra and other sources, the following events appear to have occurred to date.
Three weeks ago foreign Shia militia and Russian forces left Palmyra and were deployed elsewhere, mainly in Aleppo. At about the same time witnesses in Palmyra said 500 fighters reached Syria and were sent to different front lines, the bulk joining ISIS forces near Palmyra. Shortly they were joined by as many as 4,500 more.
On 10/8/2016 ISIS had begun an assault on government positions in Homs province, where Palmyra is located. It quickly overran government army checkpoints and seized oil and gas fields until it reached the city’s edge. The jihadists briefly entered the Palmyra on Saturday 10/10/2016 before appearing to partially withdraw after Russia launched intense air strikes during Saturday afternoon on the advancing units of the IS, According to some reports, the air power forced the IS units to suspend the offensive but despite the raids and the arrival of Syrian army reinforcements, IS seized control of the city hours later. The activist-run Palmyra Co-ordination Collective said IS militants then seized the city’s military warehouse and its northern and western districts after taking government positions, oilfields wheat silos, the city’s hospital and strategic heights in the surrounding countryside over a period of 72 hours. ISIS also attacked two gas fields, al-Mahr and Jazal, which are important for Syria’s electricity generation and some residents in Damascus are reporting that they have been suffering increased electricity shortages since IS took Palmyra for the second time.
Video released by Isis showed abandoned tanks and other vehicles and empty streets, with buildings still emblazoned with paintings of the Syrian flag and Mr Assad.
The T4 military airport, located 50km west of Palmyra in the east Homs countryside, which is a main strategic goal of IS is one of the Syrian regime’s largest and most important airbases, being near a strategic crossroad that lead to Deir Ezzour, Raqqa, Damascus, and other key cities,. On 12/12/2016 the day after they captured Palmyra, IS fighters declared their intent to capture T4 and reportedly battled to within two kilometers of it amidst their ongoing ground offensive in eastern Homs.
One Palmyra resident reported yesterday that days before the surprise attack government forces and their allies redeployed to Aleppo to join the fighting there. Another resident who was able to escape shortly after IS invaded, reported that “Days before the battle began, we noticed regime forces move a large number of fighters and military equipment towards Aleppo city,” as he added on 12/12/2016 that just before the Islamic State attacked, the number of Syrian, Russian and militia personnel had decreased “from around 40,000 to 10,000.” This observer does not particularly credit these large numbers having been given information that there were never that many government fighters still based in Palmyra since its liberation this past May.
What appears to have aided the ISIS recapture of the city is Palmyra’s isolated location in the eastern desert of Homs province, where the group was able to overrun territory quickly and the geography of the city, being surrounded by mountains, makes it very difficult to defend.
On Monday, 12/12/2016, after four days of fighting, IS took control of the eastern part of Palmyra. On Tuesday, 12/13/2013 mass executions were reported in Palmyra of more the 200 residents including a school principal and his family. One of the people near Palmyra who was providing information about recent developments was among those reported executed. Most were shot but a least two were beheaded with IS fighters showing residents photos of what happens to “regime agents.”
As of today IS controls the whole area and its loss is raising questions and much second-guessing from Monday morning armchair Generals. And some real Generals from countries now fighting here.
Most agree that the quick retaking of Palmyra was possible because was not properly defended militarily; and, thus, it was very vulnerable so IS focused their forces in this direction. The breakthrough and rapid advancement of IS was possible due to fundamental mistakes of commanders of units of the Russian and Syrian Armies, deployed in the Palmyra area, who let their guard down and apparently ignored local reports by remaining townspeople that “Daseh” was returning. The Russians did not pay due attention to fortification activities, processes of equipping positions with engineering and combat hardware, and there was carelessness during tactical reconnaissance and assessment of the forces and means of attackers. As a result, commanders did not report the all necessary information to the higher command in Damascus on time, thereby, deluding it.
There are several reasons offered by Syrian military analysts to explain why Russian and Syrian commanders are being accused of making so many mistakes simultaneously.
On 10/8/2016 ISIS began an assault on government positions in Homs province, where Palmyra is located, It quickly overran army checkpoints and seized oil and gas fields until it reached the city’s edge. The jihadists briefly entered the city on Saturday 10/10/2016 before partially seeming to withdraw after Russia launched intense air strikes. Despite the Russian bombing and the arrival of Syrian army reinforcements, IS seized controlled of the city hours later. The activist-run Palmyra Co-ordination Collective said IS militants quickly seized the city’s military warehouse and its northern and western districts after taking government positions, oilfields wheat silos, the city’s hospital and strategic heights in the surrounding countryside over a period of 72 hours.
Lieutenant General Stephen Townsend, who commands the US-led coalition bombing IS in Syria, said jihadists seized a large trove of gear including air-defense weapons when they retook the desert city from Russia and Syrian regime troops on Sunday, 12/10/2016. “We believe that includes some armored vehicles and various guns and other heavy weapons, possibly some air-defense equipment,” Townsend said in a video briefing from Baghdad. Townsend said the coalition would, at least initially, defer to the Russians to try to retake Palmyra but his lack of confidence in Russian ground forces was plain. Another U.S. defense official told Fox News IS was in control of an SA-3 missile system taken from the Syrian regime outside Palmyra, a development first reported by the Washington Post.
LT. Townsend and members of the US led Coalition is said to blame the Russians for the debacle and that the breakthrough and rapid advancement of the IS took was due to fundamental mistakes of commanders of units of the Russian and Syrian Armies, deployed in the Palmyra area, who he claims let their guard down and ignored local reports from remaining citizens that Daseh was returning. They did not pay due attention to fortification activities, ISIS processes of equipping positions with engineering and combat hardware, and they were careless during tactical reconnaissance. Russian commanders failed to anticipate a surprise ISIS attack which is one of their well-known tactics over the past two years. Russian commanders are also being accused of misjudging the availability of rebel forces and the capabilities of likely attackers.
As a result, commanders responsible for safeguarding our globally shared cultural heritage in Palmyra did not report the necessary information to the higher command in Damascus thereby deluding it with respect to clear evidence over the past few weeks that IS was nearby.
Russia is also being accused by the US led Coalition of making many mistakes simultaneously. Specifically not having intelligence sources in Palmyra city, adjacent to the acres of ruins now once again in grave danger, gross negligence in reconnaissance, being preoccupied with their bombing campaign in Aleppo, not observing or ignoring the redeployment of new units of the IS group from Iraq to Syria, as well as involvement of the most experienced IS commanders of the senior and middle levels in the offensive and failure to anticipate the likelihood of large numbers of suicide bombers, involved in the operation. A common IS tactic.
In Russia’s defense, what also appears to have aided the IS recapture of Palmyra is its isolated location in the eastern desert of Homs province, where the group was able to overrun territory quickly and the geography of the city, being surrounded by mountains, rendering it difficult to defend.
A source in Homs, 200 km west of Palmyra commented to this observer, “We know that Russia can bomb our hospitals, schools, public gathering and markets. But we have no confidence that their ground forces can defeat Daesh and save Palmyra.”
Adding to doubts about Russia’s performance in Palmyra are reports citing local sources near the site of the attack in eastern Homs province, northwest of Palmyra, reported that there were cases of the use of Sarin gas and suffocation and that dozens had been wounded during heavy rocket fire on 12/12/2016 of the area. Local sources had reported seeing dead bodies with no visible injuries, claims the UK Observatory. The reported gas attack came from the air and took place near the town of Uqairabat, which lies on a main road leading south into Palmyra from government-held territory. Amaq, a news service linked to ISIS, said in an online statement that 20 people had died and around 200 were injured from breathing problems “as a result of a Russian air attack with sarin gas.” These allegations have not been proven.
The Syrian and Russian commands are well aware that IS cannot be defeated this time in Palmyra by just airstrikes. For this reason, combat-ready units of the Syrian Armed Forces-rumored to be from the reputedly competent ‘Tiger Force” is urgently being dispatched to Palmyra on orders of President Assad. As of 12/15/2016 there is no reported sign of their arrival as IS forces work to secure their new supply of weapons and set up positions among the ruins of Palmyra and nearby locations.
A government Minister I met with this morning (12/16/2016) was with President Assad last night when he met with his cabinet and discussed Syria’s plans to retake Palmyra. This afternoon there are reports that he has commanded the elite “Tiger Force” to lead the attack to re-take Palmyra.
Russia’s air force and some of its elite fighters are reported, according to the same source, to be at this hour preparing to invade Palmyra. Perhaps as early at the next 48 hours since time is of the essence. On orders from President Putin currently in Japan.
The Syrian people’s past and are globally shared endangered heritage in this cradle of civilization may hang in the balance.