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Why have IS militants spared ancient Palmyra?

Ho, Welayat Homs, AFP | Screen grab from an IS group propaganda video showing its flag flying over Palmyra's monuments
3 min

The international community has expressed alarm over the fate of the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra, which was seized by the Islamic State group on May 20. But almost two weeks later, Palmyra’s monuments are apparently still standing.


The news has come as a surprise to many, since the Islamic State (IS) group has drawn international condemnation for destroying irreplaceable ancient treasures in the Iraqi cities of Mossul, Nimrod and Hatra.

The jihadist movement has shared videos of a member destroying an Assyrian winged bull at a museum in Mosul with a jackhammer. It has boasted of turning bulldozers on the biblical city of Nimrud and smashing 2,000-year-old artifacts with sledgehammers in the northern city of Hatra.

But according to several media outlets, it has nevertheless spared the cherished Syrian heritage site in Palmyra – at least for now.

Instead of demolishing the city's archaeological treasures, the IS group announced that it had destroyed the prison in Palmyra, known in Arabic as Tadmur. The prison, a longtime symbol of the Syrian regime’s repression, was blown apart with explosives on May 30.

Self-proclaimed IS members have gone so far as to declare that ancient Palmyra, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is not in danger.

“Concerning the historical city, we will preserve it and it will not be damaged, God willing, but what we will do is destroy the statues that the infidels used to pray to,” a man alleging to be Abu Leith, an IS group commander, told a Syrian opposition radio station.

“As for the historical monuments, we will not touch them with our bulldozers as some tend to believe,” the man was quoted as saying by the International Business Times.

PR campaign

According to some analysts, the IS group is not attempting to win sympathy among locals or foreigners by sparing Palmyra’s monuments. The announcement is, in fact, consistent with its brand.

“There is no change in strategy,” said Wassim Nasr, a FRANCE 24 journalist who specialises in jihadist movements. “From the beginning, the group has been clear that it is only out to destroy statues.”

The jihadists are nevertheless waging a PR battle in Palmyra, as elsewhere in Syria and Iraq.

“The IS group’s target in Palmyra was always the jail. By destroying it they position themselves as liberators of those oppressed by [President Bashar al-] Assad’s regime. And that is consistent with their strategy,” Nasr said.

Indeed, Palmyra’s prison is notorious as the site of a 1980 massacre in which as many as 800 inmates may have been killed, many of them Islamist opponents of then president Hafez al-Assad, Bashar’s father and predecessor.

Political prisoners from Syria and other Middle Eastern countries, and from different religious groups, have been tortured and locked up in Palmyra’s prison over the years.

Assad officially closed the prison in 2001 as he sought to improve Syria’s image internationally. The prison only reopened in 2011, officially to lock up the militants who rose up to fight Assad as the Arab Spring spread throughout the region. But some observers wonder if the prison was ever closed, and if it didn’t instead continue to house "disappeared" Syrian dissidents.

Since it took over Palmyra, the IS group has shared never-before-seen images from inside the prison, including those of jail cells almost devoid of light.

The Syrian regime transferred all of Palmyra’s prisoners before the jihadists took over the town – a move that Nasr said robbed the IS group of a priceless PR moment.

This article was translated from its original in French.


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