How 100 Syrians, 200 Russians and 11 dogs out-witted ISIS and saved Palmyra
Something just didn't feel quite right to Syrian army brass as they penciled in final plans to liberated Palmyra in early March 2016 and as they debated how best to drive Daesh (ISIS) out of Palmyra and deep into the surrounding unwelcoming Syrian desert. This, according to army intelligence officials and commanders who this week briefed this observer at various locations around Palmyra.
Some generals were puzzled. "Why did Daesh not do even more damage at the ancient ruins, given their widely broadcast iconoclasm and their targeting as heresy ancient pre-Islamic sites," one officer remembers asking his colleagues. Daesh (ISIS) certainly had the means and their perverted Koranic motivation to destroy the whole ancient ruins area. This puzzlement was widely held by officials and military strategists who increasingly wondered what was really going on as it became evident that Daesh's military positions at Palmyra were untenable and they surely would be driven out. Many archeologists and others wondered the same thing as the horrors shown on ISIS YouTube videos began to appear on the Internet.
The Syrian army was soon to learn the answer to their question of why didn't the Islamic State (Daesh) do more damage among the acres of ruins?
A bit of background. Before waging its final assault to re-take Palmyra, Damascus issued orders to the army not to shell near the ruins. The Syrian air force was similarly instructed not to bomb in the close-in area. So the army, at the cost of losing some troops, did not invade from the south into the area of the ancient ruins. Rather they surrounded the whole area and fought close-in street battles, mainly in the "modern" city area. "Tadmor, (Palmyra) was taken piece by piece to avoid damaging the ruins", one officer who took part in the fighting explained to this observer.
It is now known why sparing the "ruins area" from close-in fighting may have been alright with ISIS, for what they had carefully planned, as discussed below, was a deadly surprise for the anticipated and hoped, for more than for 1000 Syrian troops they calculated would soon arrive and advance into the ruins.
ISIS had correctly assumed that the Syrian military would not bomb Palmyra's National Museum, Syria's second most tourist visited collection of antiquities after the National Museum in Damascus. For this reason ISIS housed key leaders and its Sharia court and archives among the remaining statues inside Palmyra's museum and were fairly safe during their 8 month occupation of the "Bride of the Desert". This, as they methodically chiseled off the faces and hands of each of the 74 statue heads, including those in what people here refer to the Museum's "Head Room." It was in the basement of the museum that ISIS planned for the fate of the acres of our cultural heritage ruins.