The National Museum, Damascus
It's a god-awful situation today 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. (here)
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. see here.