Palmyra holds a dual significance to Syrians as being home to some of the world’s most celebrated ruins and one of the Assad regime’s most feared detention and torture facilities. Both, as it happens, will gain new prominence in the days ahead, as ISIS has just swept through the desert tableland, sacking its second city in the course of a week in which a few hundreds of its militants stormed Ramadi, the provincial capital of al-Anbar, largely uncontested by skedaddling Iraqi Security Forces. That sacking put ISIS in firm control of strategic foothold some 70 miles west of Baghdad, and well within striking distance of the Iraqi capital, where suicide and car bombings have spiked recently.
Similarly, the taking of Palmyra puts ISIS on a theoretically straight trajectory for mounting an incursion into Homs—once the cradle of Syria’s revolution and now mostly retaken by the Assad regime—and then possibly onto Damascus, where the terror organization had briefly conquered the Yarmouk Palestinian refugee camp last month. The loss of Palmyra is a clear threat to Syria’s cultural patrimony, consisting as it does of the standing remnants of 2,000 year-old temples and tombs, because of ISIS’s designation of “idolatrous” pre-Islamic art and architecture—or anything too big for ISIS to hawk on the black market—as worthy only of powdering.
Islam in action. But since Islamic “countries” — there are no Islamic countries, only member “states” of the ummah — make up a large percentage of the UN’s membership, absolutely nothing will be done about this latest act of Islamic cultural vandalism.
For now, Palmyra remains “calm,” but the mood is undeniable anxious. The departing army destroyed the electrical transformers, Omran said, bathing the ancient city in darkness. Batteries are being used to power computers, but Internet access is spotty. Another source of concern is regime propaganda after the withdrawal: State television has made false claims that Damascus evacuated all of Palmyra’s civilians before its men withdrew. “We’re worried that this was to lay the groundwork for an imminent bombing raid that will make no distinction between Daesh and us,” Omran said, using the derogatory Arabic word for ISIS.
Word on the street is that ISIS has already begun its barbarous counterintelligence work, claiming to have compiled a list of regime agents and sympathizers—a number that, in its view, includes opposition activists opposed to both Assad and ISIS. “The search is on for them,” Omran said.
How were the city’s some 50,000 residents coping, less than 24 hours into ISIS rule? “There’s almost no movement inside the city itself,” he said. “ISIS didn’t introduce a curfew yet, but there’s no one on the street, so you’d think there was one.” And the mood? “Some people have resigned to their fate,” Omran said. “Most of the key services have been shut down. The bakery has run out of flour. The regime shut the lights. People are fearful. They’re not sure what tomorrow holds.”
Death and more destruction is my guess.