I first got to visit the magnificent ancient site of Palmyra on a family trip as a teenager. Getting to the desert town by car was, back in the nineties an absurdly arduous journey with only a single two-lane road connecting it to the rest of Syria. But the ancient Roman ruins more than made up for the difficult trip. Experiencing their splendor first hand, I could see why their images featured prominently on Syria’s currency.
Years later, I made a point of taking my younger brothers to visit the ruins once they were old enough to appreciate them. Fifteen years after my first visit, the road to Palmyra was still as atrocious as ever, and the nearby town of Tadmor hadn’t developed much in the intervening years, but the ruins themselves were as magnificent as ever. Had they been more accessible, they would have rivaled Egypt’s Pyramids for sheer number of visitors.
Sadly, the ancient city would eventually succumb to the ravages of the conflict tearing Syria apart, and the town of Tadmor, with its population having swelled to five times its pre-conflict numbers with displaced persons, has fallen to Da’esh — the Islamic State (ISIS). The prospects for both the town’s inhabitants and its famous ruins could not be any bleaker, judging by ISIS’ past behavior in Iraq and the east of Syria.
It is impossible to overstate the dire implications of the Islamic State’s conquest of the city. Culturally, Palmyra has been the crown jewel of Syria’s heritage; its loss is akin to the United Kingdom losing Stonehenge.
Militarily and strategically, ISIS’ control of this central Syrian city is a monumental and disastrous setback to all the efforts undertaken to defeat the extremist group. Despite being subjected to months of air bombardments on the part of an American-led coalition, ISIS is now well positioned to strike at Syria’s major population centers in the western provinces of Homs, Hama and Damascus.
In theory, the armies of Bashar Assad based in Tadmor should have been able to easily fend off any conceivable attack by ISIS. The place is surrounded by open desert, supplied by a nearby airport, with a garrison at Tadmor’s infamous prison, a place that, pre-conflict, represented the worse horrors and brutalities of the Baathist dictatorship, but had since been surpassed by dozens of equally brutal prisons and dungeons all over the country. It put the Syrian Army in the enviable position of defending against an ISIS force that was far from its main areas of control, with highly vulnerable and exposed supply lines. The logistics of the battle were heavily in favor of the regime.
But the Syrian Army’s sudden and unexpected collapse in the face of ISIS’ offensive serves to illustrate the high toll the conflict has taken on the army and the degree to which it has been degraded as a fighting force. The regime’s swift defeat also highlights the unfortunate fact that ISIS remains very much a dangerous force.
Tadmor was the first town that the extremist group managed to conquer directly from President Bashar al-Assad’s forces. For years, the regime had comforted itself with the fact that ISIS’ main focus was to battle rebel brigades in areas the regime considered to be of secondary strategic importance.
With its conquest of Tadmor, ISIS can no longer be regarded as a group whose influence is confined to the periphery of the country. The regime’s collapse at Tadmor — despite its strategic advantages in the area — is the final nail in the coffin of the idea that a Western alliance with Assad can jointly take on the Islamic State.