After 11 months of occupation, ISIS forces have finally withdrawn from the historical city of Palmyra after a major defeat against Syrian forces, which were also aided by continuous Russian airstrikes. This loss is seen as one of the most significant stumbles thus far for ISIS—also known as ISIL, the Islamic State, and Daesh—since its establishment as a caliphate in 2014.
“Palmyra city is now fully cleared of ISIS terrorists after the army established complete control over all its parts, including the archaeological site and the airport,” said the Syrian army through a statement relayed to the state-controlled Syrian Arab News Agency.
The city had been in the middle of a three-week siege that left hundreds of casualties and caused ISIS fighters to flee. Its loss follows a string of setbacks for ISIS in recent times, impeding its efforts to expand into more territory and further establish its Sunni-based caliphate throughout the area.
“The liberation of the historic city of Palmyra today is an important achievement and another indication of the success of the strategy pursued by the Syrian army and its allies in the war against terrorism,” said Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
“Assad highly valued the help Russian air forces have provided and underlined that such successes as regaining Palmyra would have been impossible without Russia’s support,” said Kremlin spokesman, Dmitry Peskov. Russian president, Vladimir Putin, himself congratulated Assad on this victory against ISIS.
Palmyra is noteworthy not merely as a strategic location, but also a historically significant place due to its structures dating back over 2,000 years. It had been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1980, making the destruction of its ancient buildings by ISIS an irreparable loss to the preservation of human history. Its chronology starts from the 2000 BCE, through Hellenistic and Roman periods, its brief tenure as an independent empire, annexation by various Arab caliphates, assimilation into the Ottoman Empire, and finally to its abandonment in 1932.
The destruction of historical structures by ISIS started as soon as Palmyra was occupied. The defacing of statues such as the Lion of Al-lat was reported on May 23, 2015. The Temple of Baalshamin went next on August 23, 2015, then the Temple of Bel a week after that. Three tower tombs, including the Tower of Elahbel, were also leveled. ISIS then went as far as demolishing non-religious structures, including the Arch of Triumph.
Most of the destruction had been done by ISIS towards sites that predate its historic Islamic caliphate to abide by anti-idolatry laws of Islam. It’s also combined with the looting of precious artifacts and selling them to fund operations. Aside from Palmyra, ISIS had also laid waste to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud and the ruins of Hatra.
Creative Commons set up an online repository of images of Palmyra on October 21, 2015 in response to the destruction in the ancient city, to preserve what had been there before ISIS took over. This includes the New Palmyra Project, wherein people can upload photos and 3D models to help remodel Palmyra.
This is not the last time a radical Islamist group like ISIS had destroyed historically-significant structures and artifacts. The Taliban had destroyed a number of historical treasures that date back to the heydays of the Silk Road that saw the exchange of Buddhist, Hellenistic, and even Egyptian cultural influences. Among those defaced were the Giant Buddhas of Bamiyan, which were blown up with dynamite in March 2001 under the orders of their then-leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, due to being declared as iconoclastic.
ISIS has recently been up against pressure on several fronts throughout Iraq and Syria, which had been building up for months prior to the retaking of Palmyra. Meanwhile, the fighting in Syria has been somewhat halted by a precarious ceasefire between U.S.-backed rebels and the Syrian armed forces. Despite this agreement, 135 people were killed during the first week of the truce.