[Midden-Oosten] ISIS captures Palmyra

Jeff meisner op xs4all.nl
Vr mei 22 16:39:47 CEST 2015


05.21.15 5:25 AM ET
Inside Palmyra, the Ancient City ISIS Just Sacked
Michael Weiss

Hours after the terror group grabbed its second city in a week, Palmyra was 
pitch-black and silent. But residents are bracing for bloody reprisals—and 
the destruction of historic sites.

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. 

“The fighting is putting at risk one of the most significant sites in the 
Middle East,” Irina Bokova, the director-general of UNESCO, said in a 
statement, while Syria’s chief of antiquities, Mamoun Abdulkarim, told AFP 
that many statues and artifacts in Palmyra’s museum been relocated already 
but that immovable monuments were now helpless. 

The same can practically be said for the evaporated Syrian army. So 
desperate were Assad’s troops that they resorted to freeing Palmyra’s 
prisoners to get them to fortify the city in a last-ditch and pathetically 
unsuccessful attempt to hang on, one local resident told The Daily Beast.

According to Khaled Omran, a member of the Palmyra’s anti-Assad Coordinating 
Committee, the regime tried to reinforce its collapsing front lines 
Wednesday with detainees from the notorious Tadmour Prison. Most, however, 
ran away from the ISIS onslaught rather than stay and fight for their 
jailers. “I saw about 10 busloads of prisoners being driven to the front,” 
Omran said Wednesday evening via Skype. “Maybe 1,000 men.” They added to the 
regime’s “thousands” of soldiers and forcibly conscripted tribal militias 
who were used, in Omran’s words, as “cannon fodder.” 

Assad’s military were stationed throughout the city and its outlying 
districts, which are home to several security installations, including an 
important airbase that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps has used in the 
past to deliver resupplies to its overstretched and attrited ally, and the 
Syrian air force has used to wage sorties on mostly civilian and non-ISIS 
targets in the war-torn country. However, the use of prisoners to defend 
against ISIS stands as an interesting contrast to how the terror army did 
the jailbreaking in Ramadi earlier in the week in order to swell their own 

“Four days ago, ISIS started their preparations to storm” Palmyra, Omran 
explained. “Regime forces called in reinforcements, mainly to the military 
security branch and the citadel, but relied heavily on their air force. The 
number of ISIS fighters was quite small—they were in the hundreds. They 
weren’t very heavily equipped, save for antiaircraft guns mounted on trucks 
in six positions around the city.” These rudimentary air defenses were 
enough to deter to the fighter planes and attack helicopters. “I didn’t see 
them down any jets, but the guns were enough to deter most of the aerial 

Video footage uploaded by activists does show what appear to be some aerial 

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, an opposition-linked monitor, 
claimed that the regime withdrew or evacuated its forces on Wednesday, 
though Omran insisted that many of these also deserted because of fear of 
inevitable ISIS atrocities, such as beheadings, photographs of which were 
circulated on social media as the militants invaded in a now characteristic 
form of psychological warfare. “Regime troops were fleeing left and right,” 
he said. “Most of the senior Alawite officers in the army fled earlier and 
left their men—Sunnis—to their own devices.” Assad’s forces also evidently 
pulled away from the phosphate mines abutting the main M3 highway system, 
theoretically giving ISIS a straight shot to Homs and Damascus.

If Omran’s account is true, it would signal a uncanny replay of another 
ignominious regime defeat in August 2014, at Tabqa Airbase in the eastern 
province of Raqqa, when ISIS seized the installation and captured or 
executed hundreds of Syrian soldiers, some of whose heads were cut off and 
stuck on pikes. A video later posted online by Assad loyalists accused the 
regime of treason after Syrian generals reassured their rank-and-file that 
helicopters were en route to deliver 50 tons of ammunition and resupplies 
when in fact those aircraft turned up only to spirit away the generals, 
leaving the rank-and-file to perish. The video also accused Syrian 
Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi of covering up this betrayal of Syrian 
soldiers and led many pro-Assad activists to begin to seriously question the 
competence and willingness of the dictator to combat terrorism.

Mohammed Ghanem, the director of government relations at the Washington 
D.C.-based Syrian American Council, said he could not understand how an 
imminent ISIS advance wasn’t stopped by either regime or coalition aircraft. 
“We are mystified as to how ISIS columns with hundreds of fighters were able 
to traverse the Syrian desert and reach Palmyra without suffering a single 
air raid,” he told The Daily Beast. “The areas between ISIS-controlled 
cities and Palmyra are sparsely populated, and any significant military 
convoy should have been extremely easy to spot. Yet neither Assad nor the 
coalition conducted raids against ISIS.”

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.”



Frantic Message as Palmyra, Syria, Fell: ‘We’re Finished’
MAY 21, 2015

BEIRUT, Lebanon — The Syrian Army soldier had long served in Palmyra, but he 
was on leave when he heard that Islamic State militants had attacked a 
village northeast of the desert city, killing dozens of his comrades. He 
sent frantic text messages, trying to reach them. No one answered.

He shared his anguish last week in a series of texts as he slowly pieced 
together bits of the story from survivors of the massacre. Soldiers told him 
they had run out of ammunition. One officer radioed to headquarters, “We’re 
finished.” Worst of all, the soldier said, was the photograph he was shown 
of the decapitated body of a friend, the 19-year-old daughter of a Syrian 

Yet a closer look at the two battles shows the group following a longer-term 
strategy, in both cases biding its time, taking territory mainly from other 
insurgent groups. Then, after years of war, attrition and corruption had 
left the government forces demoralized and, particularly in Syria, hollowed 
out, it attacked, overrunning them.

Palmyra was a place where tensions had long simmered, a mainly Sunni tribal 
city where a local rebellion was put down early in the war, and where 
relations between residents and security forces were complex. A young 
officer serving there from the Alawite heartland had confessed a year 
earlier that he felt no connection to the population and feared residents 
would kill him the first chance they had.

Ramadi, the capital of Anbar Province, Iraq’s Sunni heartland, was also 
divided in its loyalties.

Those problems were on display in Palmyra before and during Wednesday’s 
rout. Residents were caught between the latest Islamic State onslaught and 
what sometimes seemed like a haphazard government response. The scenes of 
chaos that unfolded belied the Syrian state news media’s claim that 
government forces had withdrawn only after taking families to safety.

Residents — supporters and opponents of President Bashar al-Assad — 
described officers fleeing, leaving civilians and lowly conscript soldiers 
to fend for themselves. One business owner said he watched pro-government 
militiamen run helter-skelter into orchards, not sure where to retreat. 
“Treason,” he called it.

Residents videotaped airstrikes coming close to the town’s medieval citadel 
and wondered why the militants had not been bombed earlier — by the 
government or, for that matter, by the United States-led coalition waging a 
parallel air war against them — while they were traversing miles of open 
desert roads.

But most of all, they said, they had lost any sense that the government 
could provide safety even to its loyalists. On Thursday, after the militants 
had taken over the city and begun executing people they deemed close to the 
government, many residents cowered in their houses and basements, terrified 
of militants in the streets and of government shelling and airstrikes from 
the sky.

Some found it ominous that the state news media had incorrectly declared 
that most civilians had been evacuated, perhaps an excuse to increase 

“I can foresee the regime bombarding the town massively, especially after 
the huge loss among its soldiers,” said Khaled al-Homsi, a member of the 
committee that organized anti-government protests in Palmyra in 2011, before 
anyone imagined full-blown civil war, let alone a group like the Islamic State.

“The civilians are terrified,” he said. “The only bakery is controlled by 
ISIS. The army is bombing randomly.”

Mr. Homsi, 32, a former hotel worker who uses a nom de guerre for safety, 
said he was nervous that the militants would seek revenge against him and 
other activists who oppose them and the government.

“I’m happy that Palmyra was liberated from the regime, but not happy it fell 
under Daesh control,” he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic 
State. “In my view, as an activist, it is not a liberation.”

In a rare wartime visit to Palmyra a year ago, New York Times reporters met 
a range of people, who have kept in touch. In recent days, they provided a 
play-by-play view of the chaos, emotion and uncertainty there as the 
militants rolled in.

Khalil al-Hariri, an archaeologist who keeps his hair dyed shoe-polish 
black, fled his house on the northern edge of the city, which had become the 
front line, while his colleagues scurried to cart away ancient artifacts 
from the museum. On Palmyra’s few shopping streets, metal gates rolled down, 
shuttering businesses like the Zenobia Café, named for a legendary queen of 
ancient Palmyra. Omar, a fellow activist of Mr. Homsi’s, began erasing 
computer files that he thought the militants would find incriminating. Mr. 
Homsi said he had nothing to hide. Poking fun at the Islamic State’s ban on 
smoking, he said, “I’ll hide my cigarettes.”

Ahmed, who owns an antiquities shop near the museum, said on Wednesday that 
his family had packed their bags to leave town. But, he said, “The 
government is not allowing us.”

Expecting to head to Palmyra with reinforcements, the soldier, who is 27 and 
comes from a Sunni family, sent a photograph — maybe his last, he warned. 
But the roads were blocked. A cousin serving in Palmyra told him: “Stay 
where you are. God loves you.” The soldier asked not to be further 
identified out of fears for the safety of he and his family.

After the militants took control, Mr. Hariri, the archaeologist, reached 
again by phone, said that he had left with about four people. Nevertheless, 
he said, “most of the civilians are still there.” He paused. “What can I 
say? The situation is really bad.”

Another business owner spluttered in anger, “This is the army’s fault.” He 
was out of town when the assault came, but was unable to get his parents out.

He said his parents had reported militants’ issuing a call from the minarets 
for people to hand over any soldiers or government workers. Yet, at the same 
time, the militants were fanning out through the city to offer services. 
“They are even handing out bread, god forbid,” he said.

By Thursday night, several dozen people had been publicly executed, 
residents said.

For Mr. Homsi, the day’s events had presented him with a new power to revolt 
against. “We will face and confront the destruction of the town’s history 
and heritage,” he said. “The revolution was and will remain my life. We 
won’t accept oppression from anyone.”

As for the soldier, he had lived through bloody battles, but none had shaken 
him like the deaths of his comrades. (Thirty-five soldiers were buried in 
the provincial capital of Homs on Thursday alone, a resident who lives near 
the hospital there said.)

“I wish I were not a soldier, but a civilian living normal life, married 
with children,” he confessed on Wednesday. His situation, he said, reminded 
him of a line from the beloved damascene poet Nizar Qabbani: “Love me... 
away from the lands of oppression and repression, away from our city which 
has had its fill of death.”

Then he headed off to try once more to reach the front. He has not texted 

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