Syria’s ancient city
of Palmyra in danger

ISIS has advanced to the outskirts of the UNESCO World Heritage site.

Palmyra. (AFP/Joesph Eid)

BEIRUT – The Islamic State (ISIS) has launched an offensive outside the ancient city of Palmyra, killing dozens of regime troops in an advance that has put millennia old archaeological treasures at the UNESCO World Heritage site in jeopardy.


“ISIS has launched successive attacks in the vicinity of Palmyra, seizing full control of the town of Al-Sukhna that lies on the Palmyra-Deir Ezzor highway,” Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar reported Thursday.


“The fall of Al-Sukhna… opens the road in front of ISIS toward Palmyra,” field sources told the newspaper.


The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that fierce fighting in the town—which lies approximately 65 kilometers northeast of Palmyra—left 70 regime troops dead on Wednesday, including six officers, while ISIS lost 40 of its fighters.


Meanwhile, Syrian ARA News said Thursday that “battles have reached the outskirts of Palmyra,” which beyond its historic significance also carries strategic importance as the regime’s strongest military point in the Syrian desert.


“A state of panic has spread among civilians in the historic city of Palmyra,” an activist told the outlet.


Battlefield balance


Pro-opposition Al-Souria Net cited a report by the Syrian Revolution General Commission (SRGC) detailing the areas seized on Wednesday by the extremist group.


According to the report, in addition to the town of Al-Sukhna, ISIS captured areas on the outskirts of Palmyra, including the Al-Amiriyah area and buildings close to the ancient city’s famed archeological remains.


The report also said that in addition to Syrian army officers’ housing near Palmyra’s industrial area, ISIS had captured military arms and fuel depots, the Al-Khatib gas station and a regime checkpoint.


While this was happening, the regime sent reinforcements to Al-Sukhna, in an attempt to regain control of the town and the other areas its forces had lost around Homs. The move also aimed to provide support for regime troops in Palmyra, the SRGC added.


A local activist told Al-Souria Net that the ISIS advances east of Homs were the result of the regime’s preoccupation with fighting in Idlib.  


Samer Homsi said that several days ago the regime had pulled out most of its troops from areas east of the central Syrian city and sent them to Idlib to help break the siege on the National Hospital in the town of Jisr al-Shughur.


“ISIS attacked Al-Sukhna, Al-Amiriyah, the Al-Amiriyah storehouses and dozens of checkpoints around Al-Sukhna, managing to take complete control of the town within 10 hours,” the report cited Homsi as saying.


The activist added that the Tiyas Airbase, some 40 kilometers west of Palmyra, had been put out of service by heavy rocket and artillery bombardment.


However, the regime operates another airbase in the city of Palmyra itself from which its jets can conduct sorties.


A source speaking to the pro-Damascus Al-Akhbar said that positions captured by ISIS could be quickly retaken, before the group has the chance to establish itself inside them “especially with the actions taken by the [Syrian] Air Force from Palmyra Airport to remedy the situation, [and] after army forces stationed at the location have mobilized for a counterattack.”


Cultural heritage


Prior to the start of the Syrian civil war in 2011, Palmyra was one of the country’s top tourist sites, attracting tens of thousands of visitors per year from around the world seeking to see the fabled Hellenistic and Roman era ruins as well as a 13th century Mamluk fortress.


These ancient ruins, which are listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site, would be threatened if ISIS took over the city.


The militant organization has shown a propensity for destroying cultural heritage sites, including the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud in Iraq’s Ninevah province that ISIS fighters bulldozed in early March.


ISIS has also blown up a number of medieval mosques throughout its areas of control in Syria and Iraq as part of its policies to destroy “un-Islamic” sites.

Following the destruction of Nimrud, UNESCO chief Irina Bokova issued a statement denouncing ISIS’ disregard for cultural heritage.


“We cannot remain silent. The deliberate destruction of cultural heritage constitutes a war crime,” she said.


The chief of the UN organization, which administers a list of world heritage sites, called on “political and religious leaders in the region to stand up and remind everyone that there is absolutely no political or religious justification for the destruction of humanity’s cultural heritage.

ISIS has killed at least 70 regime troops in its advance on Palmyra. (AFP/Joesph Eid)

A state of panic spread among civilians in the historic city of Palmyra.