Tuesday, March 29

Assad talked Islamic State into sparing most of Palmyra's ancient monuments

Palmyra ruins, post-liberation

This report from yesterday's (U.K.) Telegraph, filed by Raf Sanchez, explains what for me was the great mystery associated with the Syrian Army's campaign to retake Palmyra: why Islamic State didn't completely destroy the ancient ruins of Palmyra:
Footage of Palmyra broadcast on Russian television showed Syrian troops trying to unearth bombs buried below a road and one apparent explosive system made of rigged-up petrol containers.
Efforts to assess the archaeological damage to the 4,000-year-old city have been slowed by the traps and sporadic fighting with ISIL fighters nearby.
But Maamoun Abdulkarim, the Syrian regime’s antiquities minister, said initial reports showed that “80 per cent of the ruins are in good shape.”
He revealed that the regime had worked in secret with “45 to 50 people” inside the city to persuade ISIL against completely razing ancient areas of the city during its 10-month reign.
“(ISIL) saw that there would be a popular uprising against it if it destroyed everything. It didn’t steal and it didn’t destroy everything,” he said.
The National Post (Canada) version of the Telegraph report headlined it this way: Syria secretly worked to convince ISIL against destroying all of Palmyra’s ancient ruins and added this paragraph:
The famed Lion of Al-Lat, shattered by ISIL last year, could be put back together and there was not the widespread looting that had been feared, he said. Amr al-Azm, a former antiquities official who is a now a member of the opposition, said that while the deliberate destruction of artifacts caused by ISIL had been “catastrophic” there was less damage during the regime offensive than feared.
There was still considerable looting and destruction but nothing next to what some treasures in Iraq suffered. See ‘The stone walls have been literally pulverized’: ISIL razes 1,400-year-old Christian monastery, the oldest in Iraq  (Associated Press, January 2016).

And as the reports on Palmyra mention, "some of the simpler structures, such as the 1,800-year-old Roman Arch of Triumph, could be restored relatively quickly," although others will take longer.

The Palmyra national museum did not fare as well as the ruins according to a Sputnik report on March 27, the day the city was liberated, Palmyra National Museum Completely Plundered, Artifacts Partly Destroyed:
After the sappers managed to clear mines at the entrance and in some parts of the city, the military unblocked the road and allowed journalists to start working in Palmyra and its national museum.
The militants broke all pedestals and display cases and scattered pieces of statues across the floors. As a result of hostilities, the museum's roof was broken and a wall was severely damaged.
However, the report was filed by a few journalists who were quickly eyeballing the damage to the museum; probably archaeologists will find much in the museum that can be restored once they make a close inspection. 

And a little-known fact, publicized by Sputnik only when the Syrian Arab Army offensive to retake Palmyra was well underway (March 25), is that prior to retreating from Palmyra last year, the SAA evacuated not only the majority of civilian residents but also the most precious antiquities in the museum.

And there is surely a worldwide dragnet to locate catalogued artifacts that were stolen by IS and sold on the clandestine antiquities markets. I wouldn't be surprised to learn that a good number of the stolen artifacts were purchased by representatives of museums around the world that were determined to save the Palmyra antiquities and hold them until Islamic State was routed.

I'd assume the effort was redoubled after IS murdered Khaled al-Asaad, a Syrian archaeologist who'd hidden several Palmyra artifacts and refused to divulge their location even under threat of death. After that, I think saving Palmyra's antiquities became very personal for museum boards of directors and legal private art and antiquities collectors all over the world.

There is another positive aspect about the restoration of Palmyra: it represents a special case. This will unlock donations that otherwise wouldn't have been available to the restoration. The issue with rebuilding destroyed ancient ruins is that once this is done the ruins are no longer "genuine" no matter how artful the restoration. Yes I know it can sound a bit silly on first hearing but organizations dedicated to funding the preservation of ancient sites have to think this way.

However, an exception will be made for Palmyra. And while the report I quote below doesn't mention this, I suspect one reason for the exception is the heroic sacrifice of Khaled al-Asaad, who'd dedicated his adult life to preserving Palmyra.      

From SANA's March 27 report, Emergency plan set to rehabilitate terror-defiant archaeological Palmyra [emphasis mine]:

Damascus, SANA – Primary ideas for a rehabilitation plan to restore glory of Palmyra have been set up after the archaeological city was cleared of terrorists by the Army, the Director General of Antiquities and Museums Directorate (DGAM) said on Sunday.

“Reconstructing some vandalized ruins is possible in spite of “the ultimate losses that are archaeologically irredeemable in terms of genuineness,” DGAM Director General Maamoun Abdul-Karim added.


Experts will estimate the volume of damage on a field visit in the upcoming days for making emergency works and setting up strategies for rehabilitating monuments such as Palmyra Castle and re-building the temples of Baalshamin and Bel, the Arch of Triumph and the funerary towers, which were demolished by ISIS terrorists last year.

“The general and known viewpoint prefers not to rebuild antiquities but in the case of Palmyra it is different …We seek to restore the devastated temples in a way that preserves their historical identity depending on the original stones remaining in the site or bringing new identical ones from the city’s quarry,” Abdul-Karim said.

A unique symbolism is now added to the world-famous historical city after having defied terrorism,” DGAM Director-General said in reference to Palmyra’s newly acquired terror-challenging symbol, clarifying that rehabilitating works will be carried out with the aim of having these antiquities witnesses to the terror atrocities.

DGAM has a qualified staff of construction engineers and archaeologists of high scientific competence and good experience in the archaeological restoration and the rehabilitation of archaeological buildings after events such as war and [other] catastrophes.

DGAM will carry out works of rehabilitation and restoration in cooperation with local and international partners from the United Nations Organization for Education, Science and Culture (UNESCO), the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) and International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property (ICCROM).

“It is worth mentioning,” Abdul-Karim said, “that 70 years ago DGAM carried out rehabilitation works under the supervision of Archaeologist Khaled al-Asaad, an iconic figure from the ancient city who was decapitated by ISIS terrorists last year.”

On 19 of April, a monument of Palmyra Arch of Triumph will be put in London Square. The six-meter high monument weighing 12 tons has been designed by the Institute of Digital Archaeology at Oxford University in coordination with the DGAM, and it is to tour several world cities including New York before it is finally placed in Syria.

Abdel-Karim pointed out that the DGAM rehabilitated numerous archaeological sites after the Syrian Arab Army restored security and stability to the areas containing them, such as Krak des Chevaliers, not to mention restoration work implemented in Ma’aloula and the Old City in Homs.

Rasha Milhem/ Ghossoun


Given the size and complexity of the restoration task and that cutting-edge technologies are now available to such projects, I think experts from several disciplines will volunteer their time to assisting the Syrian restoration team. 

There are debates about how long the restoration will take. See this March 28 report from The Wall Street Journal, Syria’s Palmyra Can Be Repaired in "Five Years" . While the report makes clear that five years is a very hopeful estimate, there will be much progress in that time. 

But no progress would have been possible without the incredibly shrewd argument President Bashar al-Assad's administration put forward to Islamic State.



bdoran said...

Do you have any links on the mechanics of how he looked after his enemies families while their men were fighting him?

Assad is shrewd and a bastard but it worked.

When one is making arguments to hard men appeals to sentiment and emotion are useless at best...if not in fact hazardous.

This could prove useful in the future along the same lines.


Pundita said...

Not beyond what I published a few months ago. But from that, the mechanics were simply that he allowed families of known (Syrian) opposition fighters to stay in their homes in Aleppo and other cities without being hassled by the government. And the families received the same benefits, including food handouts, that other residents did.

This was such an intelligent strategy -- in fact it didn't become generally known (outside Syria) until his administration began working out deals with opposition fighters to leave parts of Aleppo. This meant the fighters had to take their families with them. So then the wives got upset with the husbands. They didn't want to leave their homes, and they didn't want to take their kids out of school and go live in some hell hole like Raqqa.

But I think the strategy was rooted in Assad's knowledge that many of these men joined the opposition only because it was a paying job. What Syria needs more than anything else is jobs.

And Assad isn't a bastard. He is the person Joan Buck wrote about in Vogue -- her original article for Vogue, not the re-do she did months after the article was published. It's just that he greatly underestimated at first the attempt to take control of Syria and the propaganda campaign against him, and his wife. The attempt is beginning to look to me like a bona fide conspiracy but there might have more than one; the picture is still unclear, at least to me. In any case, Assad eventually realized these people weren't playing, and it wasn't just the old bugaboo, the Muslim Brotherhood. By then, however. it was too late. So this is what's called wising up at the point of gun.