The conquest of Palmyra and the “IS” logic of destruction

(In collaboration with Termometro Politico)

After the defeat of IS in Kobane and Tikrit in March, which ended up with some territorial losses, last Thursday’s events represented a turning point in the military campaign of the Islamic State across Syria. By conqueringthe city of Palmyra, the jihadist movement spread throughout the country, occupying more than 50 per cent of its territory. On Thursday, dozens of Syrian soldiers and an indefinite number of civilians were killed by the jihadists who had entered in the city. According to the estimate of the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the number of the victims has increased up to 67 civilians and, approximately, 150 governmental soldiers, until now.

This event represents for the jihadist group an important military success from three points of view. First of all, Palmyra is strategically important since it is the “Door to the East” and it connects Damascus with the eastern city of Deir ez-Zor and the western city of Homs. Moreover, it is characterised by the presence of Syrian military structures and, above all, by important gas deposits and the oil field of Shaer. Secondly, the conquest of Palmyra represents an important political victory over the Syrian army that, for the first time, has pre-emptively left a city in the hands of the jihadists, demonstrating its lack of resources to contrast the adversary. Finally, this event is important from a propagandistic point of view: the occupation of one of the most renowned UNESCO heritage sites in the Middle East has intense media interest, contributing to reinvigorate and divulgate the Salafi ideology of the jihadist movement.

The IS territorial conquests arecharacterised not only by atrocities conducted against the civilian populations but also by the destruction of millennial cities with an important cultural and historical value. In fact, after the Assyrian archaeological sites of Nimrud and Hatra in Iraq, the Syrian “Bride of the Desert” and all its ancient Roman ruins risk to be wiped out by the jihadist fury.

The architecture critic Rowan Moore, during an interview with The Guardian, has defined Palmyra as an ancient Roman site whose significance and value are exceeded only by very few others such as those in Rome, in Pompeii and Petra in Jordan. Hence, its demolition would represent a harsh cultural loss for the whole humankind.

So, which is the jihadist logic that lies beyond such destructions?

The demolition of archaeological and world heritage sites allows the IS to self-finance itself through the trade of pillaged cultural goods that, according to the UN, represents one of the main sources of enrichment for the jihadist group along with oil and ransoms after kidnappings. Being aware of this, the Syrian government has pre-emptively transferred elsewhere hundreds of ancient statues in order to avoid the jihadist plunder and demolition in the site of Palmyra.

However, the IS logic of destruction also goes beyond this lucrative objective. The abuses committed by the black Caliphate are due to the Salafi ideology that characterises its political and religious creed. The ancient ruins in the IS occupied zones had been created by pre-Islamic societies; for instance, Palmyra was founded in 2000 b.C. prior to the “revelation” of Muhammad. Since in pre-Islamic centuries people used to be pervaded by ignorance and perdition (jahiliyya), according to the Salafi extremism of the IS, tribal populations could not transmit cultural and historical heritages. In this respect, the black Caliphate has destroyed several monuments portraying pagan divinities, in Iraq.

Meanwhile, art critics, professors, politicians and experts in the cultural and artistic field have called on the international community and the UNESCO for a UN Security Council intervention in order to preserve the archaeological site of Palmyra, a crossroads of cultures between East and West, whose integrity is now menaced by the IS.



Master’s degree in International Relations (LUISS “Guido Carli”)

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