The Syrian conflict was destroying Palmyra well before ISIL showed up there – USA TODAY
In Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra, theÂ Islamic StateÂ is finishing a job that four years of violent conflict gotÂ started.
The Islamic StateÂ has become infamous forÂ destroying historical artifactsÂ in land it controls, from the Mosul Museum in northern Iraq to the ancient Assyrian city of Nimrud. When Islamic StateÂ militants overran Syria’s ancient city of Palmyra in May, it seemed thatÂ another of the world’s great cultural treasures would be lost.
On Sunday, those fears were confirmed whenÂ observers reportedÂ thatÂ the Islamic State had used explosives to blow up part of the 2,000-year-oldÂ Temple of Baalshamin, one of the most important sites in Palmyra. The news came just days after the Islamic State executed KhalidÂ al-Asaad, 83, who had served asÂ Palmyra’s chief of antiquities for a half-century.
But thereâs one thing many reports neglect to mention about Palmyra: The four-year-longÂ Syrian conflict has been quietly destroying it since even before the Islamic State, also known as ISIL or ISIS, came on the scene.
In April 2013, Reuters reported that Palmyaraâs ruinsÂ were being damagedÂ in fighting between rebels and forces loyal to Syrian President Bashar Assad. According to witnesses, rebels were moving in and around the archeologicalÂ sites and Assadâs army fired at them with rockets, mortarsÂ and artillery shells. The Syrian Ministry of Cultureâs director of antiquities and museums also admitted to Reuters that âthe Syrian army is in some areas in the archeological site and we oppose this.â
UNESCO, too, has been warning about damage to Palmyra, a world heritage site, for two years or more. The ancient city, which the United Nations’Â cultural organization calls an âoasis in the Syrian desertâ that contains the âmonumental ruins of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centersÂ of the ancient world,â has been officially listed as âin dangerâ since 2013.
In a January 2014 world heritage progress report to UNESCO, the Syrian Ministry of Culture detailed the effects of conflict in and around the site, which included, according to UNESCOâsÂ summary:
And thatâs according to the Syrian government itself. UNESCO hasnât been able to visit the site since March 2011. But based on other sources, including satellite imagery, UNESCO says the governmentÂ continued to use the site as a base of military operations until it was captured by the Islamic State in May.
It wasnât just shelling and military vehicles doing damage. The conflict has created ideal conditions for looting artifacts and made it impossible to do the kind of regular maintenance that ancient sites like Palmyra need.
In aÂ video statementÂ released in May, UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova said she was âextremely worriedâ about the developments in Palmyra, referring to the pillaging of Mosul and Nimrud. But she also noted that sheâd previously requested that the Syrian military cease operations there. âUnfortunately, we have seen this last two years some damages made. Palmyra was converted into a military camp. We have seen columns fallen and damage also to the palm groves that are adjacent to the area.â
Thereâs no denying that Islamic StateÂ militants take particular delight in destroying cultural symbols, but remember: AsÂ the Islamic State levels parts ofÂ Palmyra and erases another piece of human history, theyâre just finishing what Assad, other rebel groups, and four years of conflict have started.
This article originally appeared inÂ GlobalPost.Â Its content was created separately to USA TODAY.
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