Jihadists from the Islamic State group were in almost full control of Syria’s historic city of Palmyra on Wednesday night after the withdrawal of government forces, a monitor said
“IS controls almost all of Palmyra” following the withdrawal of government troops from all sectors except for a prison in the east and military intelligence headquarters in the west, said Rami Abdel Rahman of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
Home to a UNESCO world heritage site, Palmyra is famous for its 2,000-year-old towering Roman-era colonnades. Before the war, thousands of tourists a year visited the remote desert outpost, also known as the “Bride of the Desert.”
The takeover raised fears that the extremists would destroy the majestic ancient ruins that are one of the region’s most renowned historical sites.
Known as Tadmor in the Bible, tradition holds the city was first fortified by the Israelite King Solomon over 3,000 years ago.
The Islamic State group sparked international outrage earlier this year in Iraq when they blew up the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrod and smashed artifacts in the Mosul museum.
“I am terrified,” said Maamoun Abdulkarim, Syria’s director-general of antiquities and museums. “This is a PR battle for Daesh, and they will insist on scoring victory against civilization by destroying the ancient ruins,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
The fall of Palmyra into the militants’ hands would be an enormous loss to the Syrian government, not only because of its cultural significance, but because it would open the way to key government-held areas including Homs and Damascus.
Homs governor Talal Barazzi said Islamic State militants infiltrated overnight into some districts in the northern part of Palmyra, adding that there were ongoing street battles and snipers in the streets. “The situation is delicate,” he said.
He said 19 people were killed Wednesday, including seven civilians and 12 from the pro-government militia known as the National Defense Forces.
Abdulkarim said workers were able to save hundreds of statues and masterpieces from Palmyra that were transported to safe houses in Damascus. “But how do you save colonnades that weigh a ton, how do you save temples and cemeteries and, and, and?” he asked.
Abdulkarim appealed to the international community to declare “a red line” around Palmyra and called on the U.S.-led coalition to “at least prevent IS convoys from reaching it.”
The majority of the ruins are located in Palmyra’s south, and the militants entered Wednesday from the north after seizing the state security building from government forces.
Syrian antiquities expert and opposition figure Amr Al-Azm noted the irony of anti-Assad activists having to call on the U.S.-led coalition to support Assad’s forces in the city against IS.
“We are trapped in a sickening paradox where, to save the world heritage site of Palmyra we are forced to call on the international community and the coalition to attack ISIS forces in support of the Syrian regime, which is defending the city,” he wrote in a Facebook posting this week.
The Islamic State group’s advance on Syria’s central region to the outskirts of Palmyra followed a major military victory in neighboring Iraq, where the militants’ captured the strategic city of Ramadi, capital of the country’s largest Sunni province, over the weekend.