Just two days after Islamic State fighters were supposedly routed and driven into the desert by Syrian government troops, ISIS has reportedly taken the entire city of Palmyra, placing both its population and historical treasures in grave peril.
Far from being “degraded and ultimately destroyed,” as President Obama promised when launching his “don’t call it a war” campaign against them, ISIS on the move in both Iraq and Syria.
CNN quotes one Palmyra resident saying of ISIS fighters, “They are everywhere.” Many of the 70,000 people who lived in the city have fled, while others are huddled in their houses, hoping to escape the notice of the brutal occupation force.
“After at least 100 Syrian soldiers died in fighting overnight, Syrian warplanes carried out airstrikes Thursday in and around Palmyra, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported. But there’s no indication when, or if, Syrian ground forces will try to take back the city. Nor is there a sense that any of the others fighting ISIS, like the United States, will come to the rescue,” writes CNN.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights went on to report that “ISIS has taken the prison of Palmyra, the intelligence headquarters, everything. Everything.” Furthermore, the Observatory estimates ISIS now controls half of Syria, having spread across some 95,000 square kilometers and taken the majority of its gas and oil fields.
This prompted a man who said ISIS was everywhere — a man currently hiding in a house with 50 other people to escape the head-choppers, because he said he’d rather die than abandon his home — to wail, “The world does not care about us. All they are interested in is the stones of ancient Palmyra.”
Given the Islamic State’s past treatment of historical sites, those stones probably won’t be a concern for much longer. They’ll smash everything that doesn’t measure up to their Islamist code, and sell everything else they can loot for cash to finance their continued expansion. CNN notes the Syrian government claims to have moved many Palmyra artifacts to safer locations, but the details of this preservation program remain vague, and in any event the city’s historic architecture cannot be relocated.
“Palmyra is an extraordinary World Heritage site in the desert and any destruction to Palmyra (would be) not just a war crime but … an enormous loss to humanity,” said Irina Bokova of UNESCO, in a videotaped plea for mercy reported by AFP. “At the end of the day, it’s the birthplace of human civilization. It belongs to the whole of humanity, and I think everyone today should be worried about what is happening.”
Who does she imagine is listening to this entirely reasonable statement? The “whole of humanity” didn’t act to stop ISIS before it was too late. The job of protecting Palmyra was left to the slightly less evil regime of Bashar Assad, and they blew it. A gang of murderous thugs will now decide the fate of this World Heritage Site, and every insufficiently Islamist human being they find living near it.
In addition to the humanitarian horrors of ISIS conquest and the threat to mankind’s historical treasures, the fall of Palmyra is a significant strategic event, putting 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,” as Michael Weiss explains at the Daily Beast.
As for hopes of a Syrian government counter-attack, Weiss notes that before Assad’s troops surrendered the city, they had grown so desperate 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.” Unsurprisingly, most of the prison conscripts broke and ran before the ISIS onslaught. The Syrian government also over-relied on air power to stop the Islamic State’s forces, just as Barack Obama has done in Iraq.
The psychological impact of Palmyra’s fall will be considerable as well. The Islamic State’s reputation for brutality is already a significant force multiplier, allowing them to defeat numerically superior, U.S.-trained and equipped Iraqi forces with horrifying regularity. The Syrian military didn’t put up much more of a fight in Palmyra. “Regime troops were fleeing left and right,” an opponent of the Assad regime told the Daily Beast. “Most of the senior Alawite officers in the army fled earlier and left their men -Sunnis – to their own devices.”
Now ISIS can brag to potential recruits about sacking two cities in a week, while President Obama babbles uselessly about global warming to Coast Guard recruits. Conflict is always a test of morale, and the message of hapless disconnect from reality sent by Obama policy is a stark contrast with the Islamic State’s consistent demonstrations of homicidal willpower.
The Obama Administration treats the war against ISIS as an embarrassing distraction; ever since those Yazidis were stranded on a bleak mountainside and faced genocide at ISIS’ hands, literally forcing the president to come off the golf course and do something, the White House’s top concern has been to get the media off its back. ISIS, on the other hand, sees itself as embarked on a bloody mission to shape the destiny of the human race. Obama talks about “legitimate grievances” and hassles Christians about the Crusades, while ISIS tells everyone who opposes it to choose between submission and agonizing death.
It’s clear which of those arguments the defenders of Ramadi and Palmyra found more persuasive. Nine months after Obama declared a kinetic something-or-other against it, the Islamic State sprawls across half of Syria, occupies a city less than 80 miles from Baghdad, and has taken shrewd advantage of catastrophic Obama / Clinton foreign policy failures to spread through Libya. It’s painfully clear that this Administration has absolutely no idea what to do next.