The Islamic State was supposedly in a defensive crouch after its defeat in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, but in fact it’s lashed out aggressively on both Iraqi and Syrian fronts, with disastrous consequences in the fallen city of Ramadi. The news from Syria is better, or at least as good as any victory for Bashar Assad’s forces can be, as the ISIS fanatics have been kept from seizing the ancient city of Palmyra.
At one point, according to the Assyrian International News Agency, the head-choppers came within a mile of the UNESCO World Heritage Site in Palmyra, which includes 2,000-year-old temples and famous colonnaded streets.
Previous conquests have demonstrated the Islamic State’s eagerness to destroy treasures of antiquity that don’t measure up to their Islamist standards. Historians warned NBC News that ISIS has been looting historical sites under its control “into oblivion,” leaving them akin to “the surface of the moon” after stealing artifacts and bulldozing structures. Stolen artifacts are either destroyed or sold for cash to finance the ISIS war effort — it’s actually their third-largest income stream. The resulting devastation has been dubbed “cultural cleansing,” the deliberate annihilation of the non-Muslim past. A similar fate is feared for Palmyra, if it falls into the terror state’s hands.
Fortunately, government troops were able to push ISIS back from the historical ruins and museum facilities, but at a terrible cost in human life: 123 Syrian troops and militia aligned with the Assad regime, 57 civilians, and 115 ISIS fighters. The provincial governor claims the ISIS casualty figure is a actually bit higher.
The Syrian army is reportedly still combing the nearby town of Tadmur for bombs left during the Islamic State’s occupation. A wave of 70,000 refugees was pushed into the city by the ISIS advance.
This was a major military operation, a swift and sudden strike that left much of the city in ISIS’ hands until the Syrian military staged a counter-attack with heavy air support. CBS News notes ISIS was circulating a video on social media that showed its black flag rising above a building in Palmyra. Fortunately for historians, their efforts were focused on gas fields in the northeast of the city, while the major historical sites are in the southwest.
The Syrian military now claims to have recaptured the entire city and driven ISIS back into the desert.